The World

The Man Who Cried ISIS?

The main character of the New York Times’ Caliphate podcast has been charged with telling a fake story. But that story had real consequences.

Men stand talking in a tunnel in front of a wall with graffiti of the ISIS flag.
Syrian government forces stand next to ISIS graffiti in Deir Hafer on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo on March 30, 2017. George Ourfalian/Getty Images

From April through June 2018, the New York Times published a 10-part podcast series, titled Caliphate, that featured reporter Rukmini Callimachi discussing her reporting on ISIS fighters as well as her numerous trips to Syria and Iraq. When the podcast was released, many in Canada were shocked to hear the voice of a young Canadian man who claimed to have fought for ISIS and then returned home to Canada. The man identified as Abu Huzayfah, his kunya or nom de guerre, at times sounded reflective and regretful but at other times seemed to betray his ongoing admiration for jihadism and the ISIS caliphate. Even worse, he admitted to Callimachi that he had carried out executions as a member of the group. He went on to do several more interviews with the Canadian media confessing to various terrorism offenses.

Last week, however, all of this media attention came back to haunt him. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), after a lengthy investigation into his claimed stint with ISIS, arrested Huzayfah, charging him with “hoax-terrorist activity.” The implication of this charge is that he made it all up and did so intentionally to “generate fear within our communities and create the illusion there is a potential threat to Canadians.”

Whether or not this can be proved, Huzayfah’s claims, and the reporting of them, have had a direct impact on the radicalization debate in Canada and elsewhere.

Shortly after the podcast was released, the Canadian political establishment erupted at the prospect of an ISIS fighter cavalierly walking the streets of Toronto. The opposition Conservative Party went so far as to bring a motion in Parliament demanding that the government put forth a strategy to deal with Canadians who had traveled abroad to join or support ISIS, including women and children. In an election year, the government responded that, where possible, returnees would be prosecuted but it had zero obligation to facilitate the return of citizens detained in Syria. This was a far cry from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s refrain during a 2015 debate on the government’s right to revoke the citizenship of ISIS fighters: “A Canadian, is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

Reporting has also made clear that in early 2018, Canadian officials were in contact with Kurdish leadership about some sort of repatriation plan for Canadian ISIS fighters and family members in their custody after the loss of territory by ISIS, but this plan was swiftly and mysteriously shelved in May 2018, after Caliphate had begun airing.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Huzayfah case—the podcast, and also the notion that individuals who had carried out executions for ISIS could make it back to Canada and evade criminal prosecution—profoundly influenced the policy debate about whether to repatriate the men, women, and children in Kurdish custody. To date, Canada has refused to return a single person from northeastern Syria, not even a 5-year-old orphan girl named Amira. No other liberal democracy can match Canada’s abysmal record on this issue.

Despite the damage done by Huzayfah’s claims, proving that he committed a crime will not be easy. First, prosecutors will need to prove a negative—that he did not do the things he claimed—which, given Canada’s far-reaching disclosure obligations, could mean having to reveal how security services confirmed the lie. Second, prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Huzayfah’s false comments created a reasonable apprehension of fear that death, bodily harm, or property damage would result from terrorist activity. This means his allegedly false statements about what he did in the past would cause fear about future harm. Finally, the Crown must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Huzayfah made those statements with the intent to cause that fear.

This last requirement seems at odds with what we personally know of his actions.

One of the authors of this piece (Amarasingam) has been in frequent contact with Huzayfah since December 2016, as a researcher but also as someone working on the reintegration of former extremists, and has attempted to find religious leaders and counselors with whom he could talk. These intervention providers have spent months of their time talking with Huzayfah, taking him out to lunches and coffees, providing him with reading material, encouraging him to focus on school, work, and so on. It’s not entirely clear why he would go along with all of these private interventions if, as the RCMP alleges, his intent was to create public fear and anxiety.

Also, it is not clear what the public interest is in prosecuting Huzayfah for this offense now. The RCMP’s statement points to the need for denunciation and deterrence: to call out the crime and keep people from making these kinds of claims in the future. Setting aside the fact that we have long known that criminal sanctions are an ineffective form of deterrence, making claims that you committed terrorism offenses to multiple reporters would seem to suggest a lack of concern for criminal consequences. It’s hard to believe that the risk of facing a terrorism hoax charge would alter this calculus for others contemplating similar conduct.

The other reason offered by the RCMP is that Huzayfah’s allegedly false claims forced security services to expend time and resources to investigate his activities. Yet some of his posts on social media platforms detailing his time in Syria should have been enough to lead the RCMP to examine his conduct. The fact that investigators apparently expended a lot of resources also suggests that there was some level of credibility to his claims and concern regarding his participation with ISIS. But there is nothing in Canadian law that justifies prosecuting someone simply because officials did their job and cleared them of wrongdoing.

This case also paints an ugly picture of the government of Canada. Seemingly, officials are not prepared to do the work to return and prosecute ISIS members who committed atrocities abroad, nor reintegrate innocent Canadian children, but will go the extra mile to prosecute wannabes who make them look bad.