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His confession about being an ISIS executioner enraged Canadians. Now police say he made it up

CNN logo CNN 9/30/2020 By Paula Newton, CNN
text: A sign for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in English and French along with the crest of the RCMP. © Shutterstock A sign for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in English and French along with the crest of the RCMP.

The details were gory and vivid, the emotion was raw, but Canadian police say 25-year-old Shehroze Chaudhry lied about being a foreign fighter for ISIS and in so doing, perpetrated a terrorist "hoax."

Last week, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police charged Chaudhry, a Toronto-area man, with "Hoax-Terrorist activity" in relation to interviews that were published by "multiple media outlets," according to a police news release.

The RCMP did not provide further details about their allegations, noting only in the news release that Chaudhry "claimed he travelled to Syria in 2016 to join the terrorist group ISIS and committed acts of terrorism."

Chaudhry declined to comment to CNN.

"Hoaxes can generate fear within our communities and create the illusion there is a potential threat to Canadians, while we have determined otherwise. As a result, the RCMP takes these allegations very seriously, particularly when individuals, by their actions, cause the police to enter into investigations in which human and financial resources are invested and diverted from other ongoing priorities," said Superintendent Christopher deGale, of the RCMP's Ontario Division of the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team.

a truck that has a sign on a dirt road: The Islamic State group's flag near a burned-out vehicle in the village of Dibsiafnan on the western outskirts of Raqqa in Syria in June 11, 2017. © George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images The Islamic State group's flag near a burned-out vehicle in the village of Dibsiafnan on the western outskirts of Raqqa in Syria in June 11, 2017.

RCMP did not outline what investigators knew about Chaudhry's trips to Syria or if they could confirm that he had ever traveled there. Police also did not disclose whether they believe Chaudhry fabricated the entire story about being an ISIS member or whether it was specific details that Chaudhry disclosed in media interviews that constituted the "hoax."

Leaving Canada to participate in the activities of a terrorist group is an indictable offence with a maximum sentence of 10 years.

In a series of media interviews, most notably with the award-winning New York Times 2018 podcast "Caliphate," Chaudhry -- portrayed under the name Abu Huzayfah in interviews -- talked in graphic terms about ISIS killings and violence and pledged allegiance to the ISIS cause of creating an Islamic caliphate.

After the debut of "Caliphate," Chaudhry also spoke to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but gave different details about his level of involvement with ISIS, according to CBC.

In a statement to CNN, the RCMP says it "can confirm that Shehroze Chaudhry is the same person as Abu Huzayfah from the New York Times podcast Caliphate.

"The information aired in the Caliphate Podcast series was investigated, as were other avenues of information available to us, with the result of our investigation being the basis for the charge laid against Mr. Chaudhry," says Sgt. Lucie Lapointe.

Bombshell charges

You could still hear the shock in Amarnath Amarasingam's voice as he discussed the bombshell charges against Chaudhry, a man he says he has spoken to almost every week for nearly 4 years for research and community reintegration efforts.

"From everything we've talked about I'm a little blown away by the charge so I'm waiting to see what the RCMP says about the case and see if it survives in court somehow," said Amarasingam, an assistant professor in the School of Religion at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario in an interview with CNN.

In his work as a researcher and lecturer in extremist ideology, Amarasingam says he has spoken to dozens of ISIS fighters and while he says he cannot rule out that Chaudhry lied, he is stunned at the allegations that he faked the whole story.

"He was incredibly detailed, incredibly plausible, and then the emotional aspect of it added to it. When someone is telling you a story, when you're describing a murder that you committed or that you saw, if you haven't experienced anything like that it's really hard," said Amarasingam, adding that he spoke to Chaudhry in the last few days but did not discuss the charges against him.

In a statement to CNN on Wednesday, VP for Communications Danielle Rhoades Ha said the New York Times was reviewing the way it presented Huzayfah in the series.

"While the uncertainty about Abu Huzayfah's story was explored directly in episodes of Caliphate that featured him, his arrest and the allegations surrounding it have raised new and important questions about him and his motivations. We're undertaking a fresh examination of his history and the way we presented him in our series. We will have more to say when we complete that effort."

In an earlier statement, the Times said uncertainty about Abu Huzayfah's story was "central to every episode of Caliphate that featured him."

"Huzayfah's account was checked against several other sources and documents -- including his family, his teachers in Pakistan, flight records, university transcripts, passports, multiple American intelligence officials, an interview with another former ISIS member, geolocation of images and more. The concerns being raised now are concerns that our team examined in the podcast," Rhoades Ha said.

In defending its airing of "Caliphate," the New York Times sad the series was "responsible journalism that helped listeners understand the power and pull of extremism."

Chaudhry publicly denied being a murderer in subsequent interviews. In a May 2018 CBC interview, he said that when he spoke to the New York Times he was "being childish." He added in the CBC interview: "I was describing what I saw and basically, I was close enough to think it was me."

New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi interviewed Chaudhry for "Caliphate." She told the CBC in 2018 that she suspected Chaudhry changed his story when he realized he was under investigation in Canada. Callimachi added that as the publication date approached he threatened to say he "made it all up" if they refused to pull the story.

When CNN reached out to Callimachi for comment, she referred us to the New York Times statement.

In that statement, the news organization also pointed out that when it discovered that Chaudhry had "misled them about some details," it then aired Chapter 6 of the series which the New York Times says documented the process to uncover his inconsistencies.

Concerns in Canada

But Chaudhry's claims sparked concern in Canada and opposition leaders demanded action from the Trudeau government.

In a parliamentary session shortly after "Caliphate" debuted, Canada's public safety minister Ralph Goodale responded, "I am charged with the responsibility of keeping Canadians safe," adding, "Discussing operational matters on the floor of the House of Commons is exactly the opposite of keeping Canadians safe."

Conservative politician Candice Bergen shot back: "Canadians deserve more answers from this government. Why aren't they doing something about this despicable animal?" Bergen said.

The RCMP has said little on what role Chaudhry's media interviews played in its "extensive" investigation, asserting only that they raised "public safety concerns amongst Canadians."

Chaudhry is scheduled to appear in court in mid-November and the charge, if proven, carries a maximum prison sentence of 5 years.

Amarasingam says Chaudhry has been trying to move on with his life and that he was enrolled in university full time and also has a job. He says when the New York Times podcast was released, Chaudhry did seem uncomfortable that his interview was central to many episodes of the podcast.

"For the podcast he burst into tears when talking about the killing, and so it would require a certain level of mental distress, mental health issues to arouse the kind of emotions in yourself when talking about an entirely made up story," said Amarasingam.

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