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Saturday, October 31, 2020

Explained: A former Islamic State recruit in Canada, and his arrest for lying about executions

The arrest of Shehroze Chaudhry aka Abu Huzayhfa al-Kanadi, 25, has thrown the spotlight on a well-known journalist’s reportage and also on Canada’s treatment of persons returning from Syria.

Written by Srinath Rao | Mumbai | Updated: October 12, 2020 12:59:43 pm
Ruins of buildings destroyed during fighting between forces and IS militants in Kobani, Syria. (Reuters Photo: Erik De Castro, File)

Last week, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested a Toronto resident and disillusioned former Islamic State recruit, and charged him with lying on the New York Times podcast ‘Caliphate’ about committing two executions in Syria. The arrest of Shehroze Chaudhry aka Abu Huzayhfa al-Kanadi, 25, has thrown the spotlight on a well-known journalist’s reportage and also on Canada’s treatment of persons returning from Syria.

Who is Shehroze Chaudhry?

He is the elder one of two children of immigrants from Pakistan settled in a Toronto suburb. His father runs a shawarma shop. In his interview to the NYT podcast, Chaudhry described his early years as boring and his family as not very religious.

Over the years, he has told various publications that he travelled to Syria in 2014 to join the IS, then returned. In the NYT podcast, he claimed to have carried out two executions. He told podcast host Rukmini Callimachi, widely known for her reporting on terrorism and IS, that he always wanted “something bigger, not something simple and boring”. And in a September 2017 interview, he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that he felt an “obligation” to “perform jihad to liberate Muslims from oppression”.

Why is he accused of lying?

Doubts about his claims arose in 2018, after The NYT released weekly episodes of the 12-part podcast which chronicle both the reporting of Callimachi and audio producer Andy Mills and the time Chaudhry spent with the IS in Syria.

Chaudhry’s accounts to The NYT (Callimachi first interviewed him in 2016) contradicted versions he had given to Canadian news organisations CBC and the Global Times. From a hotel room in Canada, he told Callimachi on Caliphate that in June 2014, he shot a member of an Iraqi tribe that prevented the extremists marching to Baghdad, in the head. In another episode, he provided a graphic description of stabbing a man judged to have defied the terrorist organisation, multiple times in the heart and leaving his dagger there. “The blood was — it was warm, and it sprayed everywhere,” he had said.

But the two Canadian publications insisted that Chaudhry had denied having killed anyone in Syria. His account to The NYT forced Nazim Baksh, a news producer with the CBC whose interview of Chaudhry had aired in 2017, to question his own reporting. “I was shocked — wondering, did he lie to me?” Baksh said in an interview to CBC channel in May 2018.

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The CBC confronted Chaudhry and interviewed Callimachi. When Baksh tracked down the young man at his father’s shawarma shop, Chaudhry accepted having lied to The NYT. Baksh told CBC that Chaudhry told him: “I’ll submit to a polygraph. I embellished, I was on drugs, I was self-medicating, this was three weeks after I came back, I was so close to these things I imagined that I was the person doing them.”

Callimachi told CBC that as Chaudhry faced an investigation and possible arrest, “we need to look carefully at what he is saying now”. In the next episode, she laid out inconsistencies she had found in his story, specifically with regard to when he said he was present in Syria. Yet she also reported having found a photo which geo-located Chaudhry on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria.

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How did Canada react to the claims, leading to the arrest?

His claims outraged lawmakers. In May 2018, Conservative House leader Candice Bergen asked Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in the House of Commons why a “despicable animal” like Chaudhry hadn’t been placed under arrest. Goodale declined to discuss operational details but said police were “taking the appropriate action to make sure that Canadians are safe”.

The RCMP visited Chaudhry in 2018, the day after the release of Episode 5, in which Chaudhry claimed to committed his first execution. He was arrested on September 25 this year, in what appears to be an over two-year-long investigation by the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency, Halton Regional Police Service, the Ministry of the Attorney General, Canadian Air Transport Security Authority and Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada.

Chaudhry is scheduled to appear in court on November 16.

What are the charges against him?

The RCMP described the charge as stemming from “numerous media interviews where the accused, Shehroze Chaudhry, a 25-year-old from Burlington, Ontario, claimed he travelled to Syria… to join the terrorist group ISIS and committed acts of terrorism”.

The RCMP said that the “primary objective” for investigating individuals who have either left Canada for contributing to the activities of a terrorist group, or returned to Canada after doing so, is to ensure public safety while deterring others from engaging in similar criminal activity.

“Hoaxes can generate fear within our communities and create the illusion there is a potential threat to Canadians, while we have determined otherwise,” Superintendent Christopher deGale, Officer in Charge of the RCMP O Division’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, was quoted as saying.

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How has The NYT reacted?

The NYT said on Wednesday that a team of journalists would re-report Callimachi’s story. A spokeswoman said the newspaper had begun “a fresh examination of his history and the way we presented him in our series and would make further comment once the review was completed. While the uncertainty about Abu Huzayfah’s story was explored directly in episodes of ‘Caliphate’ that featured him, his arrest and the allegations surrounding it have raised new and important questions about him and his motivations.”

The NYT defended Callimachi and the podcast and said “the uncertainty about Abu Huzayfah’s story is central to every episode of ‘Caliphate’ that featured him”. On Twitter, Callimachi welcomed the decision to re-examine the story.

What legal action does Chaudhry face?

Global Times journalist Stewart Bell wrote last week that the maximum sentence Chaudhry faces if convicted for the “rarely-used” terrorism hoax charge is five years.

But academics Amarnath Amarasingam and Leah West argued in The Daily Beast that proving that Chaudhry lied will not be easy.

“First, prosecutors will need to prove a negative — that he did not do the things he claimed — which, given Canada’s far-reaching disclosure obligations, could mean having to reveal how security services confirmed the lie. Second, prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Huzayfah’s false comments created a reasonable apprehension of fear that death, bodily harm, or property damage would result from terrorist activity. This means his allegedly false statements about what he did in the past would cause fear about future harm. Finally, the Crown (prosecution) must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Huzayfah made those statements with the intent to cause that fear,” they wrote.

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