OTTAWA – A Canadian man admitted in court on Friday that he was making up stories about serving as a fighter and executioner for the Islamic State in Syria. In return, the Canadian authorities dropped charges against him for guilty of a terrorist threat.
The man, Shehroze Chaudhry, had been spreading fictional stories on social media about life as a terrorist in Syria from 2016, according to a factual claim agreed between prosecutors and defense. He then repeated it on several news outlets, including the New York Times, which then reinforced his stories, the statement said.
Mr Chaudhry, now 26, regretted giving interviews to the news media and “wanted to quit school and change his life,” the statement said.
Prosecutors agreed to drop the charges on the grounds that Mr. Chaudhry’s stories “were immaturity mistakes – no bad intent and certainly no criminal intent,” his attorney Nader R. Hasan wrote in an email.
However, Mr Chaudhry had to leave a so-called $ 10,000 peace bond, which would expire if he breached the terms of the agreement. The public prosecutor was initially unavailable to comment.
Under the name Abu Huzayfah, Mr. Chaudhry, who lives in the Toronto suburb of Burlington, Ontario, was the central figure in the Times’ ten-part podcast series “Caliphate”. The publication of this series in 2018 and other reports based on the stories of Mr Chaudhry sparked a political firestorm in the Canadian Parliament among opposition parties that repeatedly attacked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government for apparently allowing a terrorist killer to go free roaming the streets of suburbs Toronto.
But in truth there was little risk to the public. The statement of facts presented to the Ontario Court of Justice in Brampton on Friday concluded: “Mr. Chaudhry has never entered Syria or participated in ISIS operations anywhere in the world. “
Last year, Mr Chaudhry was arrested in Canada on charges of having committed a joke that terrified and threatened the public. After his arrest, the Times re-examined the ‘Caliphate’ series and found “a history of misrepresentation by Mr Chaudhry and no confirmation that he committed the atrocities he described on the ‘Caliphate’ podcast”. The podcast didn’t last, The Times said.
The re-examination of the series found that “Times journalists have been too gullible about the verification steps taken and disapprove of the failure to confirm material aspects of Mr. Chaudhry’s report,” said Danielle Rhoades Ha, the Times spokeswoman. “We have since introduced new practices to avoid similar mistakes,” she said.
In 2019, Caliphate won an Overseas Press Club award and a Peabody Award. The Overseas Press Club revoked his award and The Times returned the Peabody. The Pulitzer Prize Board has also revoked the podcast’s recognition as a finalist.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police interviewed Mr. Chaudhry in April 2017 – a year before the Caliphate podcast – based on information about his social media posts. At that time he told them that he had made up his story of being an ISIS fighter in Syria.
Despite this admission to the police, he portrayed himself as a former Islamic State fighter in interviews with news media and on social media almost until his arrest in September last year.
The factual allegation brought to court on Friday said a Times journalist, Rukmini Callimachi, had pressured Mr. Chaudhry to share his false story.
“Sometimes during the podcast, Ms. Callimachi specifically encouraged Mr. Chaudhry to speak out about acts of violence,” the statement said. “When Mr. Chaudhry expressed his reluctance, she replied, ‘You need to talk about the murders.'”
Ms. Callimachi denies this comment.
The trial of Mr Chaudhry on terrorist hoax charges was due to begin in February. Prosecutors agreed to drop her in exchange for his confession and for his consent to leave the peace bond and abide by its terms.
Under the terms of the peace bond, reserved for individuals who authorities fear may commit terrorist attacks, Chaudhry must stay in Ontario for the next year and live with his parents. He is not allowed to own any weapons, must continue to seek advice and is obliged to report changes to his virtual or physical address to the police.
The allegation of fact said that while Mr. Chaudhry’s stories of participating in Islamic State executions may have been untrue, “they give reasonable cause for concern that Mr. Chaudhry may commit a terrorist offense”.
Mr. Hasan, Mr. Chaudhry’s attorney, said his client “admitted he made mistakes”.
Instagram posts from 2016 – created under the name of Mr Chaudhry and posted along with an identifiable photo of his face – say that Mr Chaudhry traveled to Syria in 2014 and was part of the Amniyat section of Islamic State, one for the Homeland Security Competent Group, has been, “for a little less than a year.”
“I was on the battlefield,” said the post. “I support the brothers who are fighting on the ground.”
Meanwhile, however, Mr. Chaudhry had been to his family home in Burlington or had worked at a restaurant in neighboring Oakville, Ontario.
In November 2016, the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based group, summarized Mr. Chaudhry’s online allegations of terrorist activities in a report that was distributed to Ms. Callimachi and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, among others.
This report prompted an anti-terrorism unit with members of various Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including the Mounties, to launch the terrorism investigation.
After the police confirmed the identity of Mr Chaudhry by comparing an online portrait with the photo on his driver’s license, the police also received his travel documents. In a meeting with the police on April 12, 2017, Mr Chaudhry confirmed that he had written these posts.
“He also willingly admitted that he never went to Syria,” says the joint act.
The statement also said that shortly after receiving the research group’s report, Ms. Callimachi emailed Mr. Chaudhry to ask if he would speak about his alleged experience in the Islamic State. She soon traveled to Toronto to record interviews used for “Caliphate”.
Errol P. Mendes, professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said the decision to drop the charges indicated that prosecutors and the judge concluded that Mr. Chaudhry was not a threat, but rather an “immature young man who basically did a lot of things and tried to convince people that he was way more influential than him.
Mr Hasan, the defense attorney, said in the email that the settlement of the case “takes into account the tremendous progress that Mr Chaudhry has made over the past two years”.
“Despite the global media attention this case has received and the stress of a criminal charge,” he wrote, “Mr. Chaudhry managed to graduate from university and keep a full-time job. “