He described the killings in lurid detail — how he shot one man in the head and stabbed another in the heart before hanging the corpse on a cross.
He spoke at length about joining the religious police of the Islamic State in Syria, and being trucked to a terrorist training session on attacking the West, including North America, his homeland.
He recounted how Islamic State commanders displayed maps and color-coded instructions, showing recruits like him how to strike major Western targets, get into restricted areas, kill people and attain martyrdom.
They envisioned “something as spectacular as 9/11,” he said. “They wanted to outdo al-Qaida, make their mark.”
But Shehroze Chaudhry, the central figure in the 2018 podcast “Caliphate,” by The New York Times, was a fabulist who spun jihadi tales about killing for the Islamic State in Syria, Canadian and U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials contend.
Chaudhry, they say, was not a terrorist, almost certainly never went to Syria and concocted gruesome stories about being an Islamic State executioner as part of a Walter Mitty-like escape from his more mundane life in a Toronto suburb and in Lahore, Pakistan, where he spent years living with his grandparents.
Chaudhry’s elaborate accounts, told to The Times and other news outlets, caused a political uproar in Canada. The award-winning “Caliphate” series broadcast his claims of killing for the Islamic State to millions of listeners, fueling outrage that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government had allowed a terrorist to live freely in suburban Toronto despite the crimes Chaudhry had so openly confessed to committing in Syria.
Now, Chaudhry’s public declarations have put him in legal jeopardy. In September, Canadian authorities charged Chaudhry with perpetrating a terrorist hoax, a criminal charge that could bring up to five years in prison if he is convicted.
Tracking the thousands of fighters who have traveled from across the world to fight with the Islamic State is a sprawling, often murky, undertaking. Before “Caliphate” aired, two U.S. officials told The Times that Chaudhry had, in fact, joined the Islamic State and crossed into Syria. And some of the people who know and have counseled Chaudhry say they have no doubt that he holds extremist, jihadi views.
But Canadian law enforcement officials, who conducted an almost four-year investigation into Chaudhry, say their examination of his travel and financial records, social media posts, statements to police and other intelligence make them confident that he did not enter Syria or join the Islamic State, much less commit the grievous crimes he described.
U.S. officials interviewed for this article support the conclusion that Chaudhry, who turns 26 on Saturday, was never a terrorist threat. It is difficult to say with absolute certainty that he never entered Syria, they warn.
But even if he did, they contend, it would have been for a brief period — in which he claimed to have joined the Islamic State, received religious and weapons training, gone on patrols, meted out punishment, carried out executions and participated in secret discussions about plotting high-profile attacks against the West.
“Hoaxes can generate fear within our communities and create the illusion there is a potential threat to Canadians, while we have determined otherwise,” Superintendent Christopher deGale, head of the national security team that conducted the investigation, said in a statement about the case.
The “Caliphate” series raised questions about some of Chaudhry’s assertions and devoted an episode of the podcast to them. After the Canadians charged Chaudhry with a hoax, The Times examined his case again, taking a fresh look at social media posts, photographs, travel records, academic transcripts and other potential evidence that could shed light on his contention that he had joined, and killed for, the Islamic State in Syria.
The review established a timeline of his movements, which did not rule out the possibility that Chaudhry went to Syria within a narrow window of a few weeks. But it also identified a history of misrepresentations by Chaudhry — including using pictures of fighters in Syria that were available on the internet and passing them off as his own to portray himself as an Islamic State member — that casts ample doubt on his claims. Indeed, the review found no independent corroboration of Chaudhry’s participation in the atrocities he claims to have committed in the “Caliphate” podcast.
As a result of the review, The Times on Friday published an editors’ note that the podcast was “not sufficiently rigorous” and that the episodes presenting Chaudhry’s claims did not meet its standards.
‘His real life is a bit dull’
Today, Chaudhry spends much of his time in Big Grill, his family’s shawarma and kebab shop in a sprawling and busy strip mall in Oakville, a suburb outside of Toronto.
On a recent afternoon, Chaudhry was applying toppings and wrapping up takeout orders as a steady stream of customers made their way into the restaurant. A brightly lit picture of a shawarma rotisserie sat in the window, alongside a note offering free meals to people left hungry by the coronavirus pandemic.
“He’s bored,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who has been counseling Chaudhry for more than three years and believes his account of joining the Islamic State in Syria. “His real life is a bit dull.”
Chaudhry declined to comment, but his lawyer, Nader R. Hasan, said that his client would dispute the hoax charge. Under the law, prosecutors not only need to show that Chaudhry lied, but that he also intended to frighten the public into thinking that terrorists were about to cause “death, bodily harm” or significant property damage.
“Mr. Chaudhry has been charged with a very serious criminal offense of which he is not guilty,” Hasan wrote in an email to The Times, without specifying how he would contest the charge.
Legal experts say Chaudhry’s defense will probably challenge the second requirement of the hoax charge — that he intended to sow fear.
Cultivating a persona
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the national police force and other security agencies began investigating Chaudhry in late 2016, after he posted on social media that he had “been to the battlefield” in Syria for “a bit less than a year” and shared pictures online to cultivate his image as an Islamic State warrior.
Even at the time, Chaudhry’s social media claims offered little evidence. His postings, compiled by researchers, showed photographs of silhouetted fighters holding assault rifles in a jagged, rocky landscape. Chaudhry described the rugged setting as his “humble abode.”
But far from proving Chaudhry’s jihadi bona fides, at least one of the pictures was a brazen copy of widely available news photography, The Times’ examination found. The original image had been taken months earlier by a photographer for the official Russian news agency Tass, and had been distributed by Getty Images, one of the world’s biggest suppliers of photographs.
Other images Chaudhry provided as evidence that he had gone to Syria — specifically, snapshots he said he had taken of armed men at the beach, whom he described as his “fellow fighters” — also proved to be identical to photographs that had been posted on Twitter years before by Syrian anti-war activists, The Times’ examination found. And as with other images, Chaudhry misrepresented — or perhaps didn’t actually know — where, and sometimes when, they had been taken.
Canadian officials did not say exactly when they became convinced that Chaudhry had fabricated large parts of his story, but they insist it didn’t take very long to figure out. Ralph Goodale, the Canadian public safety minister in 2015-19, said he had information suggesting that Chaudhry’s accounts of joining the Islamic State in Syria were false when The Times broadcast “Caliphate” in 2018. Still, Goodale said he was unable to declare that publicly at the time because the police investigation was underway.
“I had reason to suspect this individual was not what he pretended to be,” Goodale, who is no longer in politics, said in an email.
Despite the many holes in Chaudhry’s story, confusing and sometimes contradictory intelligence reports circulated about him for years, offering a glimpse into the daunting challenge officials face in identifying the thousands of foreign fighters who streamed into Syria to join the Islamic State.
One Canadian official, who was not involved in the criminal investigation, recently described a 2017 intelligence report that said Chaudhry — who went by the name Abu Huzayfah — had traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. But the report, according to the official, said that Chaudhry had done little of consequence in the country and left not long after he arrived.
Beyond that, a senior Iraqi intelligence official recently said that a source had identified Chaudhry in a photograph and called him an Islamic State combatant in Iraq and Syria who had also been imprisoned in Syria, muddying the waters even more.
But after examining the evidence they collected, Canadian officials now say they are confident that Chaudhry never went to Syria, and they do not expect him to argue at trial that his claims of being an Islamic State executioner are even partly true.
‘You can’t just sit back’
Chaudhry moved to Canada from Pakistan with his family when he was less than 2 years old, according to his uncle, and grew up in Burlington, a suburb southwest of Toronto. In a university enrollment form in Pakistan, Chaudhry stated that he graduated from a Burlington high school in 2012. His father opened the family restaurant in nearby Oakville.
After high school, Chaudhry traveled to South Africa in 2012 and enrolled in a madrasa, an Islamic school, in a town just south of Johannesburg. Photographs that Chaudhry provided, which The Times recently verified as having been taken at the madrasa, showed the school, its dorms and him with other students there.
But he didn’t settle at the madrasa, according to his uncle, Muhammad Usman. Chaudhry moved to Pakistan to live with his maternal grandparents, with whom he was close. By the end of 2012, he was enrolled in an environmental science course at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Lahore, the school’s records show.
He spent the next 3½ years living in Lahore in a middle-class district, returning to Canada during school holidays, according to his family and passport records.
“He used to go to university regularly,” his grandfather Shakil Ahmed told The Times in 2018. “I used to pick him up and drop him at the bus stop. I used to collect him from the bus stop on a motorbike,” he said at the time. Ahmed has since died.
At the campus where Chaudhry studied, students in both Western and traditional Pakistani dress mingle freely. Unlike at another famous university in Lahore, the University of the Punjab, where Islamist groups keep a tight check on male and female interactions, the University of Lahore’s atmosphere is relatively relaxed and casual.
His uncle, Usman, said Chaudhry had shown some attraction to militant culture, but suggested it was more role-playing than anything serious. “He just got attracted to those types because he wanted to be a true Muslim,” he said. “He used to get very excited,” he added, by wearing garments in “Taliban style.”
Chaudhry said in the “Caliphate” podcast that the brutal civil war in Syria, which began in 2011, woke him to the plight of Muslims around the globe and spurred him to action. “You can’t just sit back and, you know, watch the world burn,” he said.
At first, he told The Times that he had flown to Turkey from Pakistan and crossed into Syria on foot, sneaking through a hole in a border fence to join the Islamic State in February 2014. He described his duties with the religious police force, patrolling the streets to enforce the group’s harsh interpretation of Islam and meting out brutal punishment on local residents, sometimes with a metal-studded belt.
He said he remained in Syria through July 2014, and was there when the Islamic State’s leader at the time, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the territory a caliphate, claiming to revive the Muslim theocracy that ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Chaudhry described the celebrations inside Islamic State-controlled territory at that triumphal moment, but said he left Syria after that, having grown disillusioned with the group and the killings he had been ordered to carry out. So he fled, he said, slipping back across the Turkish border and making his way back to Pakistan.
But suspicions arose when The Times, while reporting “Caliphate,” found no stamps for Turkey in his Canadian passport and determined that his Pakistani passport had long expired. Records show he had actually flown from Lahore to Toronto in February 2014, returned to Lahore later that same month, and then flown back to Toronto again in July 2014 — during the period he said he was in Syria.
Confrontation, and a changed story
Before “Caliphate” was broadcast, The Times confronted Chaudhry with some of the inconsistencies in his account. He then changed his story, claiming that he had traveled to Syria well after the declaration of the caliphate — sometime “after September 2014,” he ultimately said in the “Caliphate” podcast.
But even that version of events is called into question by his university records, which suggest that he went to school that fall and appear to leave little time for him to have gone to Syria.
The records show a middling student who got into trouble when he failed to pay his bus fees and who pestered the university over his biology grades. But his transcript shows that he was awarded grades for the 2014 fall term, which ended in January 2015.
Then, weeks later, records show, he submitted a handwritten note to the university in March 2015, requesting time off from his studies; his family said he had had a motorbike accident in Lahore. His Canadian passport says he left Pakistan a few weeks later, and Facebook posts by Chaudhry, documented by a Canadian journalist before they were taken down, suggested that he was back in Canada in April and May.
Chaudhry told The Times before “Caliphate” went on the air about one of his supposed emirs, or commanders, inside Syria. The emir had been the subject of an article in a Swedish publication.
The journalist who wrote the article helped The Times interview the emir for the “Caliphate” podcast. In the interview, the emir said he recognized, with some uncertainty, Chaudhry’s face from photographs that The Times had provided.
But the emir’s account challenged several of Chaudhry’s central assertions. The emir described himself as a commander in a different city from the one where Chaudhry claimed to have been stationed. He rejected the notion that Chaudhry had ever served under him. And he said that Chaudhry most likely had a military role, undercutting a principal element of Chaudhry’s story — that he was a religious police officer, not a battlefield soldier. Some of these inconsistencies were not included in the “Caliphate” podcast.
Later, the emir sent a short voice message of a second Islamic State official who claimed to remember Chaudhry. The Times never interviewed the person directly, yet included his assertions in “Caliphate.” And, as noted in the podcast, The Times did not independently verify the identities of these supposed officials or vet the accuracy of their accounts.
Beyond that, the “Caliphate” podcast said the second Islamic State official seemed to have inside information about Chaudhry — specifically, that he was Canadian — that had not been given to him in advance. But in its later review, The Times found that Chaudhry’s nationality had already been provided to the emir during his interview for the “Caliphate.” The emir then contacted the second official to see if he recognized Chaudhry.
When Chaudhry’s social media posts grabbed the attention of Canadian police in 2016, catching people who had gone abroad to join the Islamic State and charging them under terrorism laws was a big priority for authorities. For the mounted police, Chaudhry’s social media postings held the promise that they could bring a case against a Canadian citizen.
Officials said the first steps of the investigation used the digital fingerprints from Chaudhry’s trove of online activity, travel data and other information from several countries to determine if he had, in fact, entered Syria through Turkey or Iraq — the two most common entry points for foreign fighters going to Syria to join the Islamic State.
As the investigation continued, Chaudhry settled back into his life in Burlington. Before “Caliphate” aired, he told The Times that he had resumed his studies at a Canadian university. But Canadian officials say their investigation found no evidence that he was a student in Canada.
‘He’s created a fantasy’
Police and others have made attempts to shake Chaudhry from his radical views. Those people include Mubin Shaikh, known in Canada for his work as a paid police informant inside a group known as the Toronto 18. Its members had plotted an elaborate wave of terror attacks in Canada.
Shaikh, who now acts as a deradicalization guide, said he got to know Chaudhry but parted ways with him because he believed that Chaudhry would not renounce his views. He believes the stories Chaudhry told were “fantasies.”
“He’s an ISIS supporter, a hundred percent,” Shaikh said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State. “So it looks like he’s created a fantasy for himself. I can see how this happens. You’re consuming this ISIS stuff day in and day out. You have no life, no friends, no real anything.”
But Amarasingam, the professor who has been counseling Chaudhry, rejects the idea that the young man is an impostor. “You would have to be some sort of a sociopath to literally invent a story like this in your head, have all the details in place and then tell hundreds of people about it for months at a time, or dozens of people, and just kind of carry on like that,” Amarasingam said. “This seems insane to me.”
He says he remains in touch with Chaudhry and has spoken with him since his arrest. “He was upset that his name was public and his face was public, because now it’s going to prove difficult to get a job or prove difficult when he’s in a relationship,” Amarasingam said. “I think he’s definitely pro-jihadist, probably a bit pro-ISIS, even though he’s critical of them. He still talks very nostalgically in a weird way about the people he knew there.”
In May, after a special national security unit led by the mounted police investigated whether Chaudhry had gone to Syria in an attempt to join or assist the Islamic State — crimes in Canada — authorities decided to pursue the hoax charge, officials say.
On Sept. 25, they say, police arrived at the Chaudhry family’s rented home. Minutes later, Chaudhry was put in a car, where he was informed that he was being arrested under a terrorism hoax section of Canada’s criminal law.
He was allowed to go back into his house, without any other conditions. His lawyer would not describe Chaudhry’s legal strategy in the case, other than to say that “he intends to vigorously defend himself.”