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How Was Rukmini Callimachi Fooled by a Fake Terrorist?

The star ISIS reporter for The New York Times has come under criticism following new revelations about one of her sources.

Rukmini Callimachi (center) receiving the ICFJ Award for Integrity for her reporting in 2016

According to Rukmini Callimachi, the extremism correspondent for The New York Times who has earned wide praise for her work reporting on ISIS, her moment of journalistic epiphany came in 2013, in a former Al Qaeda building in Mali.

In a 2016 interview with Wired, in which she was dubbed “arguably the best reporter on the most important beat in the world,” Callimachi described standing in the remains of an office used by Al Qaeda during its rampage through Timbuktu. The floor was littered with documents in Arabic. Suddenly, she realized, some of them might be able to tell a better story of what happened there than any government official’s report. She started scooping up documents and filling trash bags.

Callimachi’s subsequent series of articles earned her a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, the first of four. More than that, it catalyzed in her a belief in the power of original documentation to tell stories that otherwise go untold. It also convinced her that jihadist groups were far more sophisticated than she realized. As she told Wired, “I had wrongly assumed that these were just a bunch of guys in a cave in a desert, very primitive and wedded to an ideology for no good reason.”

Along with careful study of jihadist social media, original documents became one of the guiding lights of Callimachi’s journalism. But they also led her to do work that critics describe as credulous, sensationalist, and even reckless. While she occupies a high-profile position sure to garner criticism, Callimachi’s work has been the target of routine objections by scholars, subject matter experts, and Iraqis and Syrians, some of them frustrated that she depends so heavily on original sources without speaking any Arabic.

Callimachi’s most recent scandal concerns the subject of Caliphate, her Peabody Award–winning podcast. The main interviewee, a Canadian man with the nom de guerre Abu Huzayfah, claimed to be a returned ISIS killer, dispensing lurid stories about his experiences. But more than two years after Huzayfah’s interviews aired, Canadian authorities arrested him on a terrorism hoax charge. It turns out that this self-proclaimed ISIS soldier may not have visited the Islamic State at all, much less carried out murders on its behalf. His supposed expertise on the inner workings of ISIS was all secondhand, if not made up.

No one is claiming Callimachi acted with intentional deception, but a listen through Caliphate reveals a number of red flags regarding Huzayfah’s credibility. That the Times’ principal ISIS correspondent barreled ahead and placed Huzayfah at the center of a highly touted podcast project says as much about Callimachi’s methods as it does about the state of prestige journalism. It also calls into question Callimachi’s sourcing, an issue that has been raised before but now deserves deeper consideration.

A few years after Timbuktu, having moved from the Associated Press to The New York Times, Callimachi began gathering documents from ISIS facilities in northern Iraq. Trailing closely behind the forces liberating Mosul and other parts of the region, she eventually collected more than 15,000 pages of what were called the ISIS Files, part of a lavishly produced report into what daily life and governance were like under the harsh administration of the Islamic State.

Callimachi was by now perhaps the most visible reporter writing about ISIS, and her decision to take so much material—and to present it as a triumph of reporting, one that saved terrorist records from certain destruction—earned a severe backlash from scholars and civil society members. It was particularly galling for Iraqis, who saw the act as another form of colonial “plunder,” as the Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon called it. Maryam Saleh, writing in The Intercept, situated the ISIS Files in a painful history of looting that has harmed Iraqis’ ability to write and study their own history.

Following an outcry, the original files, which helped inform the reporting of Caliphate, especially the several episodes not revolving around Abu Huzayfah, were digitized with the help of the George Washington University Program on Extremism. The original documents were then returned to Iraq.

For Callimachi’s critics, the ISIS Files situation reflected some of the blind spots in her reporting, including a lack of historical and cultural context.

“ISIS wasn’t born in Indonesia,” said Laila Al Arian, an executive producer for Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines. “It was born in Iraq, the very country that the U.S. invaded, occupied, and destabilized.”

ISIS was formed in the crucible of a broken Iraq and in the abattoirs of American-run prisons, where the future self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, was confined. On October 27, 2019, after years of bloody, dictatorial leadership at the head of ISIS, Baghdadi blew himself up during a firefight with American and Kurdish forces. To the surprise of many, Baghdadi had been found in Idlib, a region in Syria dominated by groups affiliated with Al Qaeda that were at odds with ISIS. Three days after Baghdadi’s death, Callimachi published a stunning report stating that recovered receipts showed that ISIS was sending money to Hurras Al Din, which aligns with Al Qaeda. Essentially, Baghdadi was paying off his arch-enemies to protect him.

The article’s stated source was “a retired former American intelligence operative” named Asaad Almohammad, who had provided eight receipts that, the article claimed, were analyzed and authenticated by Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, a well-regarded analyst.

The article immediately raised hackles in the world of terrorism analysts and scholars. “I was kind of floored by it,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “The New York Times is probably the most reputable, most prestigious newspaper in the world, and yet it ended up publishing something based on flagrantly fake documents.”

Among the inconsistencies pointed out: Some of the receipts were dated before the time of Hurras Al Din’s known founding, making them all but certainly doctored.

In preparing the Hurras Al Din article, Callimachi had actually shown Tamimi two sets of documents. One was the receipts—but only four, rather than the eight claimed in the original article (Almohammad was reluctant to share the full cache of receipts, so he had Callimachi pass along a sample to Tamimi). The other was a batch of letters and correspondence that, Tamimi said, were clearly not authentic. He told Callimachi not to use the letters. Seeing only four receipts, some of which had strange markings or redactions in their top right corners, Tamimi said, “OK, give my comment to be, ‘They do not appear to show signs of forgery from what I’ve seen.’” He added some background about the rivalry between Hurras Al Din and the Islamic State.

The published article stated that Tamimi had examined all eight receipts, not four. It also included an “if this is true”-type paraphrase of Tamimi’s remarks that then implied the existence of a back channel between the two groups—not an impossible prospect but one that Tamimi’s analysis had considered unlikely.

When Tamimi later told Callimachi he thought the eight receipts weren’t authentic, he told me, “I think she actually felt the same way about it. She said, ‘I think I should have pressed this Asaad guy more.’”

Two weeks later, instead of publishing a correction or retraction, the Times published a follow-up article. The new article, with the headline “Experts Divided on Authenticity of Islamic State Receipts,” painted a picture of two seasoned analysts having a polite disagreement. But the situation was nothing of the sort. The only person publicly standing up for the authenticity of the alleged receipts was the man who provided them, Asaad Almohammad, the former spy. (It’s unknown how Almohammad procured the receipts.)

It’s not clear why Callimachi would use Almohammad as a source. (The description of him as a “retired” operative also reads strangely, when he appears to be in his mid-thirties.) The two seem to have met through the George Washington Program on Extremism, which partnered with the Times on the ISIS Files. Almohammad was for a time a fellow at GW POE, but his background is murky. Syrian-born, he studied in Malaysia, where he claims he earned a doctorate in political marketing and psychology, and later came to the United States. He’s published an autobiographical novel about Syria and its civil war. He’s told people he’s worked for U.S. intelligence agencies, but several people and organizations I reached out to said they had heard only vague stories, no proof. (Offering proof of intelligence ties can be, of course, a thorny proposition.)

Anne Speckhard, the Director of the Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, in Virginia, met Almohammad as he was finishing his Ph.D. in Malaysia. Almohammad told her that he was from Raqqa and ran a network of informants, paid by U.S. intelligence, on the ground in Syria. “His contract with U.S. intelligence had run its course, and he was transitioning to academia,” Speckhard said.

Almohammad wrote some papers for ICSVE, but Speckhard grew mistrustful of him.

“There were many things he claimed that I wasn’t sure were true,” she said. “For instance, he wanted ICSVE to hire him and his network of informants, but we as a research institution refused to work in that manner, as we don’t conduct research like an intelligence organization would, collecting information from paid sources we know nothing about.”

According to Speckhard, Almohammad left ICSVE, where he had been a volunteer, when they declined to offer him a paid position. He then went on to other think tanks, where he wrote other papers that may have drawn on data provided by his informant network. (When Callimachi published her Hurras Al Din story, Almohammad was on the verge of publishing a paper about ISIS’s supposed infiltration of the rival jihadist organization.)

The George Washington Program on Extremism, when contacted via email, wrote, “We do not comment on individual personnel matters. In general, as a standard practice the university performs background and reference checks on employees.”

Rukmini Callimachi forwarded my questions to The New York Times’ communications team, which provided the following statement: “Asaad Almohammad was an analyst at George Washington University. His intelligence background was confirmed by his supervisor at GW, who reviewed his work history before offering him the post.”

Thomas Lynch, an official at the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL, or UNITAD, confirmed that Almohammad once served a consultant for UNITAD and “made a positive contribution.” Lynch said that Almohammad referred to having past intelligence experience. “We did not seek confirmation as it was not necessary for the particular work he was doing,” Lynch said.

Almohammad’s LinkedIn profile says that he was a subject matter expert for the University of Nebraska Omaha, working for them for nine months. The university’s National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology, and Education Center said that Almohammad was contracted “to provide source material” for an NCITE professor’s study.

Reached via email, Almohammad declined to comment. His LinkedIn profile lists his current occupation as an incident commander for the Washington, D.C., Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, which is part of the city’s local government. After a rumored career in intelligence, followed by a few years traversing the terrorism think-tank circuit, culminating in his becoming a source for a controversial New York Times ISIS story, he now works on managing Covid-19 testing sites.

In Caliphate, Callimachi shows the same credulous faith in her sources and in the documents they produce. For the podcast’s first five episodes, totaling almost two and a half hours of narrative time, she takes the testimony of the Canadian man known as Abu Huzayfah at nearly face value. It is only in episode six that Callamachi and her reporting team, which includes some of the Times’ top national security correspondents as well as a couple of tech wizards, take a skeptical eye to Huzayfah.

When Huzayfah’s story falls apart, Callimachi and her colleagues try to put it back together. They reconstruct Huzayfah’s timeline so that it better coheres, never mind the fact that there’s no proof he went to Syria. When shown supposed photos of Huzayfah in Syria, Callimachi repeatedly asks, “Is that you?” While they are able to later geolocate a photo Huzayfah provides to the banks of the Euphrates, even the Times staffer responsible admits, “I didn’t see his face, and I don’t remember seeing other personally identifying features in the two pics I saw.”

Other ways of verifying Huzayfah’s identity prove problematic. Drawing on the resources and connections of fellow Times reporters, Callimachi learns from anonymous national security officials that they think he was ISIS-affiliated and that he was on a no-fly list (the latter a distinction belonging to thousands of people, most of them innocent). Huzayfah’s own father says he doesn’t think his son was ever a jihadist, while travel records point to Huzayfah flying between Canada and his grandparents’ home in Pakistan during the period he was supposedly in Syria.

These doubts ultimately don’t matter. After episode six, Huzayfah disappears, and the podcast proceeds to Mosul, rescued Yazidi women, and other highlights from the ISIS Files and Callimachi’s reporting. Huzayfah only returns for the last episode, after he has been interviewed by Canadian intelligence and, seeing trouble on the horizon, starts recanting parts of his story and muddling others.

By now, Callimachi should have been ready to chuck Huzayfah aside. For more than a year, he led her along, telling fantastical stories about life in the caliphate, including one excruciating anecdote about executing a man by stabbing him twice in the chest. Huzayfah was too good to be true: a genuine ISIS killer who admitted to horrible crimes—most former ISIS members only claim to have seen atrocities, Callimachi notes—and returned to Canada, surviving it all unscathed.

Consider a possible view from the reporter’s perspective. She had spent more than a year chasing this story. As in poker, she was pot-committed, having invested so much. To dump those notebooks and recordings, to say that they were useless because the source was too unreliable, would have been to fold and admit defeat. A single episode exploring the subject’s contradictions, it could be argued, would resolve the issue. Instead, it only added to the project’s blaring inconsistencies and its strange narrative fissures, with Huzayfah disappearing for several episodes as Callimachi ventures off to recover the ISIS Files.

The New York Times and the journalism industry at large have promoted a form of branded hero journalism that has reached its peak in high-budget podcasts that invariably privilege the reporter’s own experience and journey to understanding. There might be murder and crimes against humanity, but what ultimately matters is how the journalist learns about and comes to terms with these horrors. The problem with Caliphate was not just its source (and the source’s sketchy documentation); it was also the personality-driven model of journalism on which it was premised. Journalism suffers when it dramatizes its own construction.

Since she found those documents in Timbuktu in 2013, Callimachi, her critics charge, has been learning on the job, rising to ever greater prominence through reports that sometimes challenge standards of ethics, sourcing, and subject matter expertise. Problems with American terrorism reportage extend far beyond her, but for the last five-plus years, Callimachi has become one of the most visible and cited chroniclers of ISIS. She has also been a lead promoter of it as a mortal threat, capable of striking anywhere. Indeed, Caliphate includes a number of audio montages of cable news reports on ISIS-linked atrocities around the world. While few doubt the group’s savagery, this melodramatic style of reporting leaves little room for discussing the reality of the threat it poses.

For all its flaws, Callimachi’s work has been key to telling the story of ISIS; it also has had real consequences. In Canada, a parliamentary debate over Caliphate helped stop efforts to repatriate Canadian citizens lost in the maelstrom of the Syrian civil war. Her pilfering of documents has caused outrage and debate over what rights countries have to these kinds of records. And her dependence on sources from the so-called terrorism industry has caused her to write a major article premised on what appear to be forged documents.

Some of her colleagues, even those who might have room for grievance, hedge their criticism. It’s a tough field, full of unreliable actors, and sometimes “you get something wrong,” Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi told me.

But the questions over Callimachi’s work are about more than individual missteps. They are, as Laila Al Arian of Al Jazeera told me, about “who’s considered an authority and who isn’t, who gets space to talk and who doesn’t.”

News organizations don’t seem to have figured that out. According to Charles Lister, the spectacular brutality of ISIS, and its ability to flood social media with horrific imagery, spurred media outlets to find people who could translate this material to the public. “People were in a kind of frenzy to find this material,” Lister said. “And the idea that someone could present insider information, an insider account of this organization, was something that sold.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Huzayfah never visited the Islamic State, but it remains unconfirmed whether he did or not.