NYT Retracts Hit Podcast ‘Caliphate’ After Determining Alleged ISIS Executioner ‘Concocted’ His Entire Story

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Shelby Talcott Senior White House Correspondent
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The New York Times retracted its 2018 podcast about an ISIS executioner and reassigned host and star terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi after an internal review “found no corroboration of” the man’s “claim to have committed atrocities.”

“Caliphate,” the podcast, reported the story of Shehroze Chaudhry, a Canadian who claimed he traveled to Syria and became an executioner for the Islamic State before ultimately escaping. But there is far more to the riveting story told by the NYT and Callimachi in 2018 – apparently, it’s all a lie, according to the NYT.

Canadian authorities accused Chaudhry of making up the story in September and filed criminal charges against him for allegedly “perpetuating a terrorism hoax,” NPR reported. The NYT began internal reviews and ultimately retracted the podcast, detailing its findings in a report Friday.

“Mr. Chaudhry, they say, was not a terrorist, almost certainly never went to Syria and concocted gruesome stories about being an Islamic State executioner as part of a Walter Mitty-like escape from his more mundane life in a Toronto suburb and in Lahore, Pakistan, where he spent years living with his grandparents,” the NYT wrote on Friday.

“Caliphate” became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won a Peabody in 2019 – despite Chaudhry’s consistently conflicting reports about the role he allegedly played for the terrorist group, NPR reported. Chaudhry repeatedly told Canadian publications before the NYT podcast was released that he wasn’t involved in ISIS killings, but the NYT still pushed his claims.

In one episode of “Caliphate,” Chaudhry discussed in detail how he killed two people, prompting massive backlash in Canada, according to NPR. Chaudhry denied all participation in ISIS killings once again, even after going on the record and discussing it with Callimachi.

“We fell in love with the fact that we had gotten a member of ISIS who would describe his life in the caliphate and would describe his crimes,” NYT executive editor Dean Baquet told NPR during an interview. “I think we were so in love with it that when when we saw evidence that maybe he was a fabulist, when we saw evidence that he was making some of it up, we didn’t listen hard enough.”

Andy Mills and Rukmini Callimachi pose in the press room with Peabody Award for 'Caliphate' at the 78th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony Sponsored By Mercedes-Benz at Cipriani Wall Street on May 18, 2019 in New York City. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Peabody)

Andy Mills and Rukmini Callimachi pose in the press room with Peabody Award for ‘Caliphate’ at the 78th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony Sponsored By Mercedes-Benz at Cipriani Wall Street on May 18, 2019 in New York City. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Peabody)

The retraction comes after the NYT and Callimachi spent considerable efforts backing the reporting.

“We were able to get to him both before any other media had gotten to him, but crucially, before law enforcement had gotten to him,” Callimachi told the CBC in 2018 after chapter 5 of the podcast was released. “He would speak to us in this window of time when he essentially thought that he had slipped through the cracks.”

The NYT agreed to look into the story only after Chaudhry’s arrest in Canada, according to NPR. NYT National Security reporter Mark Mazzetti found serious flaws with the man’s claims and senior investigative editor Dean Murphy led a second internal review of the story, according to NPR. (RELATED: NYT Blames Obama Officials For Foiled Attack On ISIS Leader)

“They came back and said, ‘If you look at the guy’s story, there is not enough powerful evidence that he was who he claimed to be for us to justify that story,” Baquet told NPR, adding that Murphy determined Callimachi and her editors often didn’t push enough to verify Chaudhry’s story.

A lengthy editor’s note has been added to each episode of “Caliphate” as a result of the findings, declaring that “the podcast as a whole should not have been produced with Mr. Chaudhry as a central narrative character.”

As for Callimachi, the star, four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist – Baquet said he can’t see how she can ever cover terrorism again. The two will work together to find a new role for Callimachi at the NYT, according to NPR.

“I do not see how Rukmini could go back to covering terrorism after one of the highest profile stories of terrorism is getting knocked down in this way,” Baquet told the NYT.

“When we get it wrong, I want people to understand we’re going to talk about it,” Baquet added. “And what I’m hoping is that by talking about it, people will understand that we want to win their trust. And we want them to believe what we report.”

The NYT article explaining its findings did not mention Callimachi by name a single time, despite her being the host of the podcast and the reporter responsible for the story. Callimachi issued a statement on Twitter regarding the news and apologized “for what we missed and what we got wrong.”

“I am fiercely proud of the stories I have broken on the ISIS beat. But as journalists, we demand transparency from our sources, so we should expect it from ourselves,” Callimachi wrote.