But now the series that repeatedly praises Callimachi’s reportorial feats is under investigation from a team of New York Times journalists for alleged reportorial lapses. On Sept. 25, Canadian authorities announced a charge against another man featured in the series: alleged Islamic State foot soldier Shehroze Chaudhry, who goes by the name Abu Huzayfah. The charge was not for terrorist activity, as “Caliphate” listeners might have supposed, but rather for spreading a hoax about those activities. Canadian police made clear that “Caliphate” formed at least part of the basis for the case against Abu Huzayfah. Though it initially stood by “Caliphate,” the newspaper on Sept. 30 pledged a “fresh examination” of Abu Huzayfah’s history and “the way we presented him in our series.”
With that, the Times assigned itself a lot of work. First up for the review team is the screwy storytelling sequence in “Caliphate”: Over the initial six episodes (a prologue and five chapters), the podcast recounts the alleged indoctrination and terrorist activity of Abu Huzayfah. In a pair of horrific passages, he describes executing two men, one of which involves a knife to the heart. Blood is everywhere. Less ubiquitous are warnings from Callimachi that perhaps this fellow isn’t telling the truth. A fact-check of sorts finally arrives in Chapter 6, titled “Paper Trail,” which points to holes in Abu Huzayfah’s claims. Why did the series plow through six episodes before unsheathing its fact-check? Shouldn’t listeners have known about these issues in the prologue?
The problems with “Caliphate,” however, run deeper than just the placement of Chapter 6. On a substantive level, the chapter fails to reckon with the inconsistencies it does raise, comes off as a mishmash of confession and narrative squirming and leaves out crucial inconsistencies reported in other outlets. At the start of the chapter, Callimachi describes spearheading a deeper look into Abu Huzayfah’s history. A long flight, she says, gave her the opportunity to “methodically go over what Huzayfah had told me. And it was at that point that I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach,” she says. (The Daily Beast reported on the internal discussions that led to Chapter 6).
The scrutiny ultimately leads the “Caliphate” team to conclude that Abu Huzayfah had given them a phony timeline — that he wasn’t in Syria, for example, in early July 2014, as he claimed to Callimachi in another episode. (That was when Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made a much-remarked-upon public appearance.)
Then an astounding thing happens: The “Caliphate” team members retrofit Abu Huzayfah with a brand-new terrorist timeline. They dig into his passport stamps and transcripts from a Pakistani university he claimed to have attended. They put all the data on a whiteboard to piece together the puzzle. Working together, the group discusses the possibility that he did go to Syria months later than he’d said. Callimachi: “There’s one big gap of time, from September of 2014 until April of 2015. His, his Canadian passport has him as being in Pakistan, right? It’s a stretch of seven, almost eight months.”
As the process bumps along, Callimachi contextualizes the search for a plausible alternative timeline:
Look, it makes sense to me that somebody that has been in the caliphate, that if he’s trying to exaggerate a little, you know, that if he’s trying to — “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I was there when Baghdadi, you know, announced it, oh, my God!” Whatever. That makes sense to me. But not going there at all and making up all of those details about the Albu Nimr tribesmen, about this execution, about what it’s like to hold the gun, about what it’s like to actually whip somebody, about the fact that the blood splashes back up on you, that would — I mean, that’s a level of invention? It’s too much! I mean, it’s — he’s providing details that nobody knows, you know?
That’s called rooting for the story.
To its credit, Chapter 6 features a moment when Callimachi confronts Abu Huzayfah about his mendacious timeline. The alleged terrorist confesses to the lie, but he has a good excuse: If you went to Syria before the creation of the caliphate, you can say that you made the trip for “humanitarian reasons,” says Abu Huzayfah, as opposed to jihadist reasons. Then Callimachi gets input from someone who’s identified as an Islamic State official; he recognizes Abu Huzayfah from pictures. “I know, I remember this guy. I am 100 percent sure,” says the official through a translator.
At the end of the episode, Callimachi says she’s keeping her notebook “open.”
Chapter 6 runs more than 43 minutes long; it consults experts and excellent reporters; it deploys geolocation technology. All of the enterprise, however, camouflages a monster omission: the information about Abu Huzayfah that had already been reported in Canadian media.
There is no mention in Chapter 6 of Global News or CBC News, prominent Canadian outlets. Yet both of them had published interviews with Abu Huzayfah months before the April 2018 launch of “Caliphate.” The Global News article, published on Sept. 11, 2017, doesn’t use Abu Huzayfah’s name, but its details match his story. Except for the part about executing people: “But while he acknowledged he had witnessed killings, he said he never killed anyone himself. He insisted he was gentle with people,” reads the piece. The CBC News interview write-up, also published on Sept. 11, 2017, uses Abu Huzayfah’s nom de guerre, and though he admits to witnessing killings, there’s no claim that he participated in them.
That seems like a detail worth including in a fact-check, right? On the one hand, this alleged former Canadian Islamic State recruit tells the New York Times that he stabbed and shot enemies of the caliphate in the most primitive ways: “I had to stab him multiple times. And then we put him up on a cross. And I had to leave the dagger in his heart,” says Abu Huzayfah of one victim in Chapter 5, “The Heart.” And on the other hand, he told Canadian media that he did no such thing.
There’s a second problem with the failure to credit. Chapter 6 pulls in reporting from three top New York Times national security reporters, who tell Callimachi that Abu Huzayfah is on a no-fly list and that U.S. sources believe he participated in Islamic State terrorist activities. Pretty convincing, right? However: There’s no consideration given to the possibility that those sources in the United States may have derived some information … from the reports in the Canadian media, or perhaps from an even earlier report by the Middle East Media Research Institute.
We asked the Times about the failure to credit, wondering whether, perhaps, the “Caliphate” folks had missed the CBC News interview. Spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha responded, “Our team saw the interview the CBC published in September 2017, but our own reporting was still ongoing. Our journalism found what others did not. Huzayfah claimed he joined ISIS before the group’s caliphate was founded. But his passport, his school transcripts and geolocation of images in Syria indicate that he was not truthful about the timing,” notes the statement, which was issued before the paper stopped commenting on the series following the announcement of its own review of the podcast. “And when our journalists discovered that Huzayfah had misled them about key aspects of his story, they documented the process to uncover his inconsistencies, much of which became chapter 6 in the series — the production of which began before publication of the series as a whole.”
In short, the Times says it didn’t alert listeners to discrepancies in the killing narrative because it found a different discrepancy, an exclusive one. After Abu Huzayfah’s stories of bloodlust surfaced on “Caliphate” in May 2018, Canadians took note, forcing Callimachi to explain herself. She said she was first on the scene: “We were able both before any other media had gotten to him but, crucially, before law enforcement had gotten to him,” she told CBC News that month. The first Callimachi-Abu Huzayfah interview took place in November 2016, “in this window of time when he essentially thought that he had slipped through the cracks."
Which is to say, Callimachi suggests that the New York Times had the first, most authentic, most accurate version of Abu Huzayfah’s story — so why credit other outlets? That MO speaks to a stubborn — and diminishing — tendency born of the Times’s position as a dominant U.S. news source.
While it’s scrubbing down “Caliphate” for factual problems, the New York Times review team might consider the sensibility that drove the entire enterprise: sensationalism.
That imperative suffuses the reporting on Bashar, the Islamic State detainee who had enslaved a Yazidi girl. After Callimachi expressed doubt about the detainee’s claims to have sought to save the Yazidi girl, Bashar challenged her: “Go find this girl,” he says. Callimachi returns to the prison the next day and conducts a call with the girl on one end (flanked by her father) and herself and Bashar on the other end. Callimachi asks the girl if Bashar had raped her. She responds: “Yes. I swear to God, all of them have taken my virtue and my honor.”
Putting a girl on the line with her rapist reeks of exploitation. Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, says it would have been difficult to secure “free and informed” consent from the girl via telephone. What’s more, it is clear from the conversation that the girl didn’t want to be “explicit,” says Wille. Nonetheless, Callimachi is “pushing her to be explicit for the purpose of capturing a sound bite,” says Wille.
The call with Bashar and the Yazidi girl may not have been a one-off, considering that Callimachi apparently had a penchant for war-theater phone drama. In late 2017, she sought to arrange a similar moment relating to an event in Chapter 4 of the series, titled “Us vs. Them.” Abu Huzayfah tells Callimachi that he participated in the killing of “important” members of the Albu Nimr tribe. Describing the act of executing a tribesman, Abu Huzayfah says, “[You] feel the pressure from the gun and everything. And you’ve, you, I guess you feel bits coming back at you when — from his head, I guess.”
According to three sources at the Times, Callimachi proposed a three-way phone interview including herself, Abu Huzayfah and an Albu Nimr tribe leader. The discussion might have included an apology from Abu Huzayfah or some sort of reckoning, say the sources. The scene didn’t make it into the podcast. Callimachi declined to speak on the record about the proposal. New York Times spokeswoman Rhoades Ha said the paper isn’t planning to answer further questions about “Caliphate” until the review is complete.
As the Times journalists rummage through “Caliphate,” they’ll notice the moments explicitly designed to elevate Callimachi. In Chapter 1, for example, she declares that she’s seeking all manner of clues about the Islamic State, just the way that a visitor to her home would “find books in Romanian, in English and in French, and you could deduce from that that I most likely speak three languages, or that members of my family are bilingual or trilingual.” In Chapter 8, she scours a building that had recently been abandoned by Islamic State officials. “I’m looking at a notebook here and wondering if I have the courage to pick it up,” she says. Also in that chapter, she comes across a document showing that the Islamic State had its own arms-production outfit. “I’m kissing this piece of paper!” exclaimed Callimachi.
Turning a talent like Callimachi into a multimedia star is a fine strategy, so long as the eye-catching discoveries pan out. If they do not, the entire enterprise will have more distance to fall.
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