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kottke.org posts about Rukmini Callimachi

NY Times Retracts “Caliphate” Podcast

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2020

Caliphate, Rukmini Callimachi’s podcast for the NY Times about ISIS, was one of my favorite podcasts of 2018 — I recommended it in a post in June of that year. The NY Times has now retracted a central story in the podcast, that of an alleged ISIS executioner from Canada named Abu Huzayfah.

During the course of reporting for the series, The Times discovered significant falsehoods and other discrepancies in Huzayfah’s story. The Times took a number of steps, including seeking confirmation of details from intelligence officials in the United States, to find independent evidence of Huzayfah’s story. The decision was made to proceed with the project but to include an episode, Chapter 6, devoted to exploring major discrepancies and highlighting the fact-checking process that sought to verify key elements of the narrative.

In September — two and a half years after the podcast was released — the Canadian police arrested Huzayfah, whose real name is Shehroze Chaudhry, and charged him with perpetrating a terrorist hoax. Canadian officials say they believe that Mr. Chaudhry’s account of supposed terrorist activity is completely fabricated. The hoax charge led The Times to investigate what Canadian officials had discovered, and to re-examine Mr. Chaudhry’s account and the earlier efforts to determine its validity. This new examination found a history of misrepresentations by Mr. Chaudhry and no corroboration that he committed the atrocities he described in the “Caliphate” podcast.

As a result, The Times has concluded that the episodes of “Caliphate” that presented Mr. Chaudhry’s claims did not meet our standards for accuracy.

From a Times piece about Chaudhry’s hoax:

Before “Caliphate” aired, two American officials told The Times that Mr. Chaudhry had, in fact, joined ISIS and crossed into Syria. And some of the people who know and have counseled Mr. Chaudhry say they have no doubt that he holds extremist, jihadist views.

But Canadian law enforcement officials, who conducted an almost four-year investigation into Mr. Chaudhry, say their examination of his travel and financial records, social media posts, statements to the police and other intelligence make them confident that he did not enter Syria or join ISIS, much less commit the grievous crimes he described.

You can read more about this on NPR. Callimachi has been reassigned by the Times; the paper’s editor in chief Dean Baquet said, “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.”

Update: Here’s a statement from Callimachi on the retraction. It reads, in part:

Reflecting on what I missing in reporting our podcast is humbling. Thinking of the colleagues and the newsroom I let down is gutting. I caught the subject of our podcast lying about key aspects of his account and I reported that. I also didn’t catch other lies he told us, and I should have. I added caveats to try to make clear what we knew and what we didn’t. It wasn’t enough.

There are several listeners of the podcast in her mentions that do not feel as though they were misled. I’d have to go back and listen to the whole thing again to have an opinion, but I would like to note that Caliphate told a story and showed the behind-the-scenes at the same time. That non-traditional approach was really compelling, a key aspect of the show’s success IMO. Because you’re dealing with violent organizations and sealed investigations (neither ISIS nor government groups like the FBI want their information out there), there are limits on how stories like this can even be told. Callimachi and her colleagues creatively found a way to tell this one: by being upfront and transparent about those limitations and explicitly showing their work, misgivings and all. But perhaps, as she said, it wasn’t enough.

Recommendation: Caliphate, the NY Times podcast about ISIS

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2018

Important note: The NY Times has retracted the story at the heart of their award-winning Caliphate podcast. The alleged terrorist they interviewed has been charged by the Canadian government for perpetrating a terrorist hoax.

For the past several weeks, I have been listening to the NY Times’ fantastic and unsettling podcast series Caliphate. The series follows Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi as she attempts to figure out the inner workings of ISIS. Callimachi and her producer & fellow reporter Andy Mills talk to an Islamic State member from Canada about how he was recruited, investigate the group’s organization, and dig through documents left behind by ISIS as they were driven out of Mosul in July 2017. The podcast is quite upsetting and tough to listen to at times, but I highly recommend doing so.

Here are a few things I kept thinking about while listening:

1. The recruitment process is fascinating. As Callimachi and the recruit talk about how he was persuaded to join up, you can see how young people are enticed by the promise of an Islamic state, of living an ideologically pure life according to one’s religion. What the ISIS recruiters tell them makes sense, it’s logical. (It’s all the things they don’t tell them…therein lies the rub.)

2. The eerie parallels between ISIS and an American business. They’ve got the onboarding process and the rapid expansion plan of a startup like Uber (down to the “ask forgiveness, not permission” tactics). They use tools like YouTube, Tumblr, and Twitter to market themselves with professionally produced videos and marketing materials. When they seized power in an area, ISIS kept much of the existing bureaucracy in place and set about winning hearts and minds by improving services for the people living there.

The world knows the Islamic State for its brutality, but the militants did not rule by the sword alone. They wielded power through two complementary tools: brutality and bureaucracy.

ISIS built a state of administrative efficiency that collected taxes and picked up the garbage. It ran a marriage office that oversaw medical examinations to ensure that couples could have children. It issued birth certificates — printed on Islamic State stationery — to babies born under the caliphate’s black flag. It even ran its own D.M.V.

The documents and interviews with dozens of people who lived under their rule show that the group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.

In the podcast, they talked to residents living in ISIS-controlled areas who say that garbage collection and availability of electricity improved after ISIS took over.

As the group grew, they diversified their income:

One of the keys to their success was their diversified revenue stream. The group drew its income from so many strands of the economy that airstrikes alone were not enough to cripple it.

Ledgers, receipt books and monthly budgets describe how the militants monetized every inch of territory they conquered, taxing every bushel of wheat, every liter of sheep’s milk and every watermelon sold at markets they controlled. From agriculture alone, they reaped hundreds of millions of dollars. Contrary to popular perception, the group was self-financed, not dependent on external donors.

More surprisingly, the documents provide further evidence that the tax revenue the Islamic State earned far outstripped income from oil sales. It was daily commerce and agriculture — not petroleum — that powered the economy of the caliphate.

ISIS was in some ways a model business: adept at PR and marketing, focused on the financial bottom line, sweated the details, and they wanted to keep their “customers” happy.

3. The stated goal of ISIS in establishing a caliphate — to turn back the cultural clock to the time of Muhammad — reminded me slightly of similar efforts here in the US: MAGA, etc.

The podcast is available at Apple or on Spotify. If you are a NY Times subscriber, you get early access to episodes.

See also a 5-minute history of the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS and my past recommendation of the Slow Burn podcast.