Amarnath Amarasingam and Mubin Shaikh are both regarded as experts in radicalization.
Both say they have spent extensive amounts of time counselling Shehroze Chaudhry, a 26-year-old Burlington, Ont. man now facing a rare terrorism-hoax charge and recently labelled a “fabulist” by The New York Times over his claims that he committed atrocities on behalf of the Islamic State in Syria.
For his part, Shaikh, a Seneca College professor and former counterterrorism operative for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, says he now believes Chaudhry never stepped foot in Syria and got caught up in his own “fantasy.”
Yet Amarasingam, a Queen’s University professor, isn’t so quick to dismiss Chaudhry’s claims, noting he’s seen signs of “remorse” and “survivor’s guilt” in the young man.
“There are specifics to his story that he may be making up or exaggerating, but, yes, I’m still inclined to believe he went to Syria until I see some evidence to the contrary,” he told the Star.
The duelling expert opinions have emerged against the backdrop of an intriguing and bizarre tale that has captured worldwide attention.
Last week, The New York Times, which had built an award-winning podcast around Chaudhry called “Caliphate,” issued a mea culpa when it announced it could not corroborate Chaudhry’s key claims, including that he had served as an Islamic State executioner in Syria, following a two-month review by a team of journalists.
“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,” the paper said. “As a result, The Times has concluded that the episodes of ‘Caliphate’ that presented Mr. Chaudhry’s claims did not meet our standards of accuracy.”
Chaudhry told The Times he had shot a man in the head and stabbed another in the heart. But the team found that evidence, including photos, Chaudhry had produced to back up his story had been gathered from other sources.
Times executive editor Dean Baquet told NPR, “We fell in love with the fact that we had gotten a member of ISIS who would describe his life in the caliphate and would describe his crimes.”
The paper’s investigation was prompted after RCMP charged Chaudhry, who went by the alias Abu Huzayfah, in September with committing a terrorism hoax. The RCMP said at the time that Chaudhry’s claims in numerous media interviews of travelling to Syria in 2016 to join the Islamic State raised public safety concerns among Canadians.
“Hoaxes can generate fear within our communities and create the illusion there is a potential threat to Canadians, while we have determined otherwise,” Supt. Christopher deGale said in a statement at the time.
“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.”
Nader Hasan, Chaudhry’s lawyer, said in an email this week his client “has been charged with a very serious criminal offence of which he is not guilty.”
“He intends to vigorously defend himself against this charge. As the matter is before the court, I cannot say more at this time.”
A LinkedIn profile for Chaudhry states he has worked as an assistant manager at his family’s takeaway shawarma restaurant, the Big Grill, in Oakville for more than eight years.
Located between a dollar store and UPS store in a large retail plaza, the restaurant had a steady stream of lunch-hour customers when the Star visited this week.
Employees, who were preparing orders behind a Plexiglas barrier, said Chaudhry was not on shift and directed further questions to a manager.
The manager, who identified himself as Chaudhry’s father, would not speak with the Star and referred questions about his son to a lawyer.
Shaikh says he first got into contact with Chaudhry in late 2016 at the suggestion of The New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi.
Over the course of the next year and a half, Shaikh says the two spoke weekly, usually on the York University campus where Chaudhry was going to school or at eateries.
Their conversations were mostly forward-looking and focused on finding ways to get him on track with his education and employment. They also talked about various topics related to Islam.
But there were occasions when Chaudhry would reflect back on his purported overseas travel, Shaikh said.
“He did tell me that he went on police patrols with the secret police,” he said.
During those reflective moments, Shaikh said it appeared to him that Chaudhry was having an anxiety reaction, “like somebody who was recounting a traumatic experience.”
“This is where I thought that this guy probably had gone over because you don’t fake these kinds of physiological reactions, like his knees shaking while he was talking, gripping his hands as if they were sweaty … PTSD symptoms. He told me how he was having nightmares.”
Shaikh says he approached media outlets in 2017 with Chaudhry’s story.
“Up until that point, all that talk about ISIS returnees was very abstract,” he said. “I wanted to advance the discussion by getting a live case out in the public, (to show) that I was dealing with him so everyone should feel a bit better about it.”
CBC and Global both ran stories on Sept. 11, 2017, but withheld Chaudhry’s identity at the time.
Shaikh says his relationship with Chaudhry soured in 2018 after The New York Times aired its multi-episode podcast “Caliphate,” featuring Callimachi’s interview with Chaudhry, in which he claimed he’d taken part in executions for the Islamic State.
Until this point, Chaudhry had not mentioned taking part in any killings during their conversations, Shaikh said.
So he confronted him.
“I basically said, ‘Look, did you actually do these things?’” Shaikh said.
Chaudhry never answered directly, he said, and became upset with his questions.
“When the podcast details came out it and I confronted him over it, it became acrimonious between us.”
Shaikh says he now believes that while Chaudhry likely was an Islamic State supporter, based on his social media posts, he did not go to Syria.
“It’s a completely made-up story. He’s a shawarma shop worker who was obsessing online with ISIS, maybe because he felt he wanted to go,” he said, offering his opinion.
“I think he didn’t go, wanted to go, got caught up in this fantasy. The heroes he was seeing online — he created himself as one of those heroes and inserted himself into that narrative. That’s my view.”
Hasan, Chaudhry’s lawyer, declined an invitation to respond to the allegations his client is a fabulist and a liar.
Shaikh says there’s a part of him that now regrets drawing media attention to Chaudhry.
“You know, I could be accused of trying to exploit him,” he said. “I’m open to that accusation.”
He says the RCMP recently interviewed him as part of their investigation into Chaudhry and that he agreed to turn over a bunch of WhatsApp exchanges between them.
Meanwhile, Amarasingam, who has conducted numerous interviews with current and former foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq as part of his academic research, says he is not yet prepared to completely dismiss Chaudhry’s story.
“I’ve been talking to (him) since December 2016 and never did I feel as if anything he told me was invented out of thin air,” he said.
“I have obviously not seen any evidence pointing to his story being false or seen any real evidence to directly prove anything he said he did. But, it’s just a sense I have from being in touch with him for so long, his unwillingness to do any media interviews about it without some prodding … and regular conversations I’ve had with him over the last several years. Not exactly a scientific conclusion, but one that I would need to see some real evidence to disprove.”
Amarasingam said Shaikh introduced him to Chaudhry and they remain in regular contact.
He says the counselling he provides Chaudhry is not the clinical kind, but, as is the case with other former extremists he is in contact with, more practical in nature.
“This may involve trying to help them find work, reading over their resumes, putting them in touch with people I know who may be able to help and so on.”
Amarasingam said Chaudhry shares commonalities with other former fighters, including “some elements of PTSD, survivor’s guilt, remorse, and so on. Can you fake all of this? Maybe. I’m just saying I need to see some evidence.”
Asked whether the revelation by The New York Times that Chaudhry had used publicly available images online as proof he was in Syria raises doubts about his credibility, Amarasingam said, “A little, but a lot of fighters used to do that sort of thing from time to time.”
When it comes to the criminal hoax charge against Chaudhry, Michael Nesbitt, a law professor at the University of Calgary, said Chaudhry has a few defence strategies available to him.
One is to assert that his story is the truth.
But he could also contest the facts the Crown brings forward, without admitting whether his story was either true or a lie. As with all cases, the burden falls on the Crown to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The Crown’s task here is made more difficult by the fact that it seems to have to prove a negative in this case: that Mr. Chaudhry did not travel to Syria, or that, if he did, that he did not do what he claims to have done in Syria, which one would imagine will not be easy things to prove,” Nesbitt said in an email.
The hoax charge requires prosecutors to prove Chaudhry intended “to cause any person to fear death, bodily harm.” That could also be a challenge.
“It is far from evident from the Caliphate podcast that Mr. Chaudhry’s intent in telling his story was to cause such fear about prospective (future) harm,” Nesbitt said.
On the podcast he claims to have done something in the past, he said. He doesn’t say he is still doing it or will do so in the future.
“Mr. Chaudhry could claim that even if he did lie about what he did in the past, it did not cause anybody to reasonably apprehend that his wrongdoing was ongoing or going to recur in the future.”
The hoax charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
With files from Jenna Moon and The Associated Press