A Canadian man admitted in court Friday that he had fabricated stories of Islamic State fighters and executioners in Syria. In return, Canadian authorities dropped criminal charges against him of a hoax involving the threat of terrorism.
According to an agreed statement of facts between prosecutors and defense, Shehrouz Chaudhry had spread fabricated stories of life as a terrorist in Syria on social media in 2016. He then repeated them in several news outlets, including The New York Times, which amplified his stories, the statement said.
Choudhury, who is now 26, regretted giving interviews to the news media and “wanted to finish school and change his life,” the statement said.
Prosecutors agreed to drop the charges because Chowdhury’s stories were “mistakes born of immaturity – not sinister intent and certainly not criminal intent,” his lawyer Nadar R Hasan wrote in an email.
However, Chowdhury was to post a so-called peace bond of $10,000, which would be forfeited if the terms of the deal were violated. The prosecutor was not immediately available for comment.
Chowdhury, who lives in the Toronto suburb of Burlington, Ontario, by the name of Abu Huzaifah, was the central figure in the Times’ 10-part podcast series “Caliphate”. The release of that series in 2018, and other reports based on Chaudhry’s stories, sparked a political storm among opposition parties in Canada’s parliament for allowing a terrorist killer to roam the streets of suburban Toronto freely. Repeatedly attacked the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
But in truth, there was no risk to the public. The statement of facts presented at the Ontario Court of Justice in Brampton on Friday concluded: “Mr. Chaudhry has never entered Syria nor participated in ISIS operations anywhere in the world.
Last year, Chowdhury was arrested in Canada on charges of committing a fraud that intimidated and threatened the public. Following his arrest, the Times re-examined the “Khilafat” series and found “a history of misrepresentation by Mr. Chowdhury and no confirmation that he committed the atrocities described in the ‘Khilafat’ podcast.” The podcast did not hold, the Times said.
A re-examination of the series found that “Times journalists were too credulous about the verification steps and were dismissive of the lack of confirmation of essential aspects of Mr. Chowdhury’s account,” said Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhodes Ha. “Since that time, we have introduced new practices to prevent similar defaults,” she said.
In 2019, “Chilafat” won an Overseas Press Club award and a Peabody Award. The Overseas Press Club revoked its award and the Times returned Peabody. The Pulitzer Prize Board also revoked its recognition of the podcast as a finalist.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police interviewed Choudhury in April 2017 – a year before the “Khilafat” podcast – based on information about his social media postings. At the time, he told them that he had fabricated his own tales of being Islamic State fighters in Syria.
Despite being admitted to the police, he continued to portray himself in news media interviews and on social media as a former Islamic State fighter until his arrest in September last year.
The statement of facts, presented in the court on Friday, said that Times journalist Rukmini Calimachi had induced Chowdhury to spread her false story.
“Several times during the podcast, Ms. Calimachi explicitly encouraged Mr. Chowdhury to discuss violent acts,” the statement said. “When Mr. Chowdhury expressed his reluctance to do so, he replied, ‘You need to talk about the killings.’ “
Choudhury’s trial on terror fraud charges was due to begin in February. Prosecutors agreed to drop the charges in exchange for his confession, as well as to post a peace bond and comply with its terms.
Under the terms of the peace bond, which is reserved for those who officials fear may commit terrorist acts, Chowdhury must live in Ontario for the following year and live with his parents. He is prohibited from owning any weapon, must continue to receive counseling and is required to report any change in his virtual or physical address to the police.
An Instagram post that began in 2016 – created under Chaudhry’s name and posted with a recognizable photo of his face – said that Chowdhury had traveled to Syria in 2014 and made him part of the Islamic State group’s Amniat section which is the wing responsible for internal security. A little less than a year.”
“I’ve been on the battlefield,” Posts said. “I support the brothers fighting on the ground.”
However, Chowdhary lived full time at his family’s home in Burlington or was working at a restaurant in neighboring Oakville, Ontario.
In November 2016, a Washington-based group, the Middle East Media Research Institute, compiled online claims of Chowdhary’s terrorist activity into a report, which was distributed to Calimachi and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
That report prompted the Anti-Terrorism Unit to launch a terrorism investigation with members of various Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies including Mounties.
After verifying his identity by matching the online portrait with the photo on Chaudhary’s driving licence, the police also obtained his travel records. In a meeting with the police on April 12, 2017, Choudhary confirmed that he had written those posts.
“He also admitted that he never visited Syria,” according to the joint statement of facts presented in the court.
The statement also said that soon after receiving the research group’s report, Calimachi emailed Chowdhury asking if he would speak about his alleged experiences inside the Islamic State group. She soon went to Toronto to record interviews used for “Caliphate”.