Did the 'Caliphate executioner' lie about his past as an Isis killer?

Shehroze Chaudhry charged with inventing identity as a ruthless killer as saga prompts debate over repatriation and de-radicalization

For months, unbeknown to his classmates and neighbours, a self-professed executioner was living freely in Canada’s largest city.

But in 2018, his exploits were made public on a blockbuster podcast produced by the New York Times, in which the man who called himself Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi confessed to a string of grisly crimes as a member of the Islamic State’s religious police.

The revelations prompted fear and outrage across Canada. Political rivals accused the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, of letting a “bloodthirsty” terrorist loose on the streets of Toronto.

Recently, however, the story took an unexpected turn. When the Royal Canadian Mounted police finally laid charges last week against 25-year-old Shehroze Chaudhry – the man behind Abu Huzaifa – they weren’t for any crimes in Syria.

Instead, he was charged under Canada’s hoax laws: police argued that his identity as a ruthless killer was a lie.

Shehroze Chaudhry, 25
Shehroze Chaudhry, 25 Photograph: unknown

The son of Pakistani immigrants, Chaudhry spent much of his youth in the city of Burlington in Ontario. After high school he travelled to Lahore for university. In 2014, at 17, Chaudhry is believed to have traveled on his Pakistani passport to Syria.

When he returned to Canada in 2016, his posts praising Isis and referring to his time in Syria caught the attention of the New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi, who in a series of interviews drew out intimate and graphic details of his time with Isis.

In one episode, Chaudhry described executing an alleged drug dealer.

“The blood was – it was warm, and it sprayed everywhere,” he said. “I had to stab him multiple times. And then we put him up on a cross. And I had to leave the dagger in his heart.” He said he shot another man in the back of the head.

The allegations quickly became a political embarrassment for the government, with opposition MPs demanding why a confessed murderer was apparently walking free.

“Normally when people commit crimes in Canada, they do generally get arrested for them – especially when they confessed to them publicly,” said Jessica Davis, a former intelligence analyst for the Canadian government and head of Insight Threat Intelligence. “This was a highly unusual situation.”

Chaudhry’s story also crystalized fears that – as the tide turned on the conflict in the Middle East – other Canadian citizens who had joined Isis and other extremist groups might return home.

Damaged buildings in Manbij in 2016.
Damaged buildings in Manbij, Syria, in 2016. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters

“The idea of fighters returning to Canada was still very abstract. The conflict was over in Syria and Iraq – it wasn’t in our backyard,” said Mubin Shaikh, a professor of public safety in Toronto and former counter-terrorism operative. “But [Abu Huzaifa] really brought it to the forefront … The story was sensational and had a fear factor.”

Some analysts argue that the furore over Chaudhry undermined any serious discussion of de-radicalization in Canada – and effectively halted any government plans of repatriating other fighters.

Among those fighters was Jack Letts, the British-Canadian Muslim convert who joined Isis and was eventually stripped of his British passport. Letts qualified for Canadian citizenship through his father, but the Trudeau government has shown no interest in aiding the 25-year-old, who remains in a Syrian prison.

“To date, Canada has refused to return a single person from north-eastern Syria, not even a five-year-old orphan girl,” the Canadian researchers Leah West and Amarnath Amarasingam wrote in a recent article for Slate. “No other liberal democracy can match Canada’s abysmal record on this issue.”

As the political row played out, key elements of Chaudhry’s story began to fray under sustained scrutiny, and he eventually denied murdering anyone.

Instead, he claimed his previous statements to Callimachi were “childish” and based on the accounts of others. “You can put me through a polygraph and it will prove that I didn’t kill anyone,” he told the CBC last year.

Even Shaikh, who worked with Chaudhry as a de-radicalization counsellor for more than a year, doubted his trustworthiness.

“I didn’t know what he was hiding, but he was being deceptive,” he said. “We started to wonder – is this all bullshit? Is this just some fantastical story?”

The New York Times initially said it “confirmed with multiple intelligence agencies” that Abu Huzaifa had been a member of Isis and had travelled to Syria.

But reporting on shared intelligence – especially from a war zone – can be complicated, said Davis.

“It’s very easy for this to develop into a bit of a game of telephone [also known as ‘Chinese whispers’], especially if you’re not actively involved in the investigation,” she said. “Based on who’s talking to who, it quite easily could have become circular reporting.”

Eventually, the Caliphate podcast itself highlighted a number of inconsistencies in Chaudhry’s version of events. But earlier this week, the paper announced it would revisit its entire reporting of his story.

In addition to questions over reporting, the saga of Abu Huzaifa has also exposed the complexities around laying charges under Canada’s terror laws.

“It hugely undermines national security when the public feels that the authorities are unable to deal with the threat,” said Shaikh.

But for Canadian officials, Chaudhry’s boasts weren’t enough: they needed hard evidence but there was little to corroborate many of his most damning claims.

In the end, they charged him under Canada’s terrorism hoax laws – more normally used for offences such as fake bomb scares. “Hoaxes can generate fear within our communities and create the illusion there is a potential threat,” the police force said in a statement.

Experts say that the tactic is not without risk. In addition to the challenge of proving a negative – that something didn’t happen – security agencies are often hesitant to reveal investigative techniques used to obtain evidence in court, especially for a charge that carries a maximum sentence of five years.

“I think it’s sometimes beneficial for law enforcement and security services to be seen as omnipotent by people who are maybe less aware of their limitations,” said Davis.

She cautions that the government’s contention that Chaudhry is lying doesn’t rule out the possibility that he may have still committed the acts he claimed.

Shaikh also harbours concerns about Chaudhry, who spent years building up an identity as an Isis supporter.

“He’s an Isis cheerleader and he created this fantasy story of himself,” he said. “And he’s come to believe it 100%. Even if he drops his story, he’s still an Isis supporter – because what other identity does he have?”

Unless new evidence emerges, the truth is likely to remain unknown, said Davis.

“We may never get a satisfying answer to this question of what he did – or didn’t – do,” she said.

Contributor

Leyland Cecco in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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