She has been admired for her prowess at getting “inside the minds” of terrorists. As late as 2019, Rukmini Callimachi, a Romanian-American journalist at The New York Times, was called “arguably the best reporter on the most important beat in the world”. Times change fast, however, particularly in the United States where old wars are rapidly interchanged with new ones.
With desperation growing and the cataclysms of the Trump administration hitting the American people hard and fast, few are interested in the work of those who claim to get inside the mind of terrorists – in this case, the terrorists of the Islamic State group.
One can safely say that most Americans would be able to recognise that the real threat to their country comes more from domestic terrorists of the white supremacist sort, but, unfortunately, there are not many journalists who show an interest in reporting on the militancy and radical mindsets of members of communities other than Muslim in the US – communities in the heart of white America, that include men and women imbued with all the qualities of hate and racism that Muslim peoples as a whole have been tarred with. It is the America-vs-the-Islamic-world lens that is applied.
In 2018, a documentary podcast series Caliphate, based on Callimachi’s interviews with an alleged Islamic State executioner named Abu Huzaifa, became wildly popular, and it seems that the editors at The New York Times were happy to overlook any concerns regarding proper fact-checking.
Proof of the separate and lax standard they applied was visible in their dazzled compliance with the ethical failures. From using her position as an embedded reporter to gather up documents that belonged to the Iraqi government after the fall of the terrorist group to the similar acquisition of documents in Mali, no questions were raised about journalistic ethics.
Any house of cards that is built on the rubble left behind after ethics and accuracy have been bulldozed is bound to collapse. That is just as true for journalism as it is for any other profession.
As I wrote in 2018 after listening to Caliphate, the reporter seemed to be styling herself as a sort of terror-catching journalist, not unlike the Osama bin Laden-catching CIA analysts distilled into Jessica Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty.
The difference was that this Abu Huzaifa who was depicted as your everyday hoodie-wearing Pakistani-Canadian/ Islamic State executioner was no Osama bin Laden. The story, it seems, was based on conjecture and an obsession with “finding terrorists” – unfortunately, even if it meant inaccurate reporting and questionable details.
But on September 25, this house of cards appeared to collapse, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested the man of “Abu Huzaifa” fame from Caliphate. The kicker was in the charges. Instead of arresting “Abu Huzaifa” (Shehroze Chaudhry) under charges of terrorism – the case for which was pushed in the blockbuster podcast – the man was arrested under Canada’s hoax laws. The reason? Chaudhry seemed to have made it all up. The “chilling” with Islamic State “bros” next to the Euphrates, the “execution” to establish his terrorist credentials, all of it was simply a great lie.
Shehroze Chaudhry’s/ Abu-Huzaifa’s ability to dupe Callimachi and the “rigorous reporting process” that was touted, reveals that this Islamic State snake oil that was being printed or podcasted was based on the account of an unreliable source.
Sometimes journalists’ attempts to find a terrorist online make them eager to believe in whatever they are served up, even if it comes from “a source” who is imagining a story that is then all too readily bought by those whose job it is to check the facts as well as the background of the source. This happens in media all over the world. But this is not expected from the New York Times or others of its ilk in other parts of the world.
The terrorist-catching fever of 2018 is now ancient history (a possible reason why the news of the hoax has received a mere fraction of the coverage devoted to the story itself) but the “type” of journalist – anywhere – who indulges in this is worth a debate. Moreover, the construction and promotion of a story that turns out to be fabricated is an adept comment on what newspaper editors, especially in the West, want to believe regarding the narrative of the “war on terror”, never mind its orientalist and racist underpinnings. It is easy to buy a picture when it fits perfectly into the frame that you already have.
Damage has already been done
The New York Times has as yet to issue a retraction for the Caliphate series they presented to the world. It should, of course, but so much damage has already been done. The cost has been borne by those Westerners who have the misfortune of being brown and Muslim.
The deeply entrenched premise – of all Muslims and brown people being somehow suspect – has endured, becoming a mainstay with white supremacists only recently recognised as a threat in the United States. Journalists who are instrumental in spreading this narrative, willing to steal and badger and ignore factual inconsistencies for the purpose of catching Muslim terrorists, continue to be celebrated.
As it was with the terrorism stories, it is likely that many in America will buy such versions as the whole truth. The truth is better loved by newspapers when they call into question the ethics and loyalties of brown Muslim men and women.
This article first appeared in Dawn.