Did former Canadian ISIS member lie to the New York Times or to CBC News?

Contradictory stories from a Canadian man about his time with ISIS in Syria raise questions about whether what he’s told two major media organizations about his role in killings overseas is true, and what should be done about it?

Granting sources anonymity can lead to good stories, but it can also lead to less accountability

A Canadian who fought for ISIS in Manbij, Syria, told the New York Times he executed two men while overseas. But he now recants that claim and has taken a polygraph test. (John Lancaster/CBC)

CBC News has learned a Canadian man who says he spent time in Syria with ISIS and committed violent acts was interviewed by the RCMP this week.

He was neither arrested nor charged with any offences, and was allowed to return home.

There were angry questions in the House of Commons earlier this month, when Conservative House leader Candice Bergen asked the Trudeau government why the man is freely being allowed to live here.

"This guy is apparently in Toronto. Canadians deserve more answers from this government," she said. "Why aren't they doing something about this despicable animal that's walking around the country?" 

The man is known publicly as Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi (Abu Huzaifa the Canadian). Details of his story have been a study in contradictions — not only for police but for the journalists covering him.

He says he travelled to Syria in 2014 to join ISIS, and fled months later in disillusionment with their violent tactics. And, depending on who he's talking to, he either witnessed killings in the name of jihad, or carried them out himself.

The man gave two very different accounts of his time with ISIS to CBC News and the New York Times. The contradictions only came to light after both news organizations published their stories.

Opposition MPs have questioned the Liberals in the House of Commons about why Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi is being allowed to live freely in Canada. 'Canadians deserve more answers from this government,' Conservative House leader Candice Bergen said. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

On a New York Times podcast called Caliphate that was released last week, the man said he had followed orders and personally executed two men, which is at odds with what he told CBC.

"I was shocked — wondering, 'Did he lie to me?'" says CBC News producer Nazim Baksh. He talked about the story and the journalistic dilemma it created in this week's episode of The Investigators.

  • Watch the full interview with Nazim Baksh on The Investigators, Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

The New York Times says it spoke to Abu Huzaifa several times, beginning just after he returned to Canada in 2016, but didn't release the interviews until recently when its podcast Caliphate was finished. In the intervening time — and nearly a year after the initial interview — he'd also talked to Baksh.

Baksh and CBC News reporter John Lancaster interviewed Abu Huzaifa last September. At that time, he had already been back living with his parents in Canada for more than a year.

"We asked him repeatedly, did you do anything, did you kill, did you execute, did you participate?" Baksh said. 

"'No,' he said, 'I was a low-level police officer.'"

Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi told the New York Times he executed two men

Abu Huzaifa didn't deny to either news organization that he'd carried out violence. He told CBC News he'd lashed a man with a whip. 

But in the podcast by New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi, Abu Huzaifa describes shooting one man in the back of the head and publicly executing another by stabbing him in the heart.

"The blood was — it was warm, and it sprayed everywhere," he said in the podcast.

Baksh says after hearing the podcast, he immediately tried to find Abu Huzaifa, whom he hadn't spoken to since their interview last year.

"We tracked him down — and I said to him, repeatedly — 'Why did you tell Rukmini Callimachi these things? These are very detailed involvements that you had in Syria and Iraq.'"

Anonymity granted when there is a 'legitimate risk of harm'

For Baksh, the differences amount to more than whether he or Callimachi had been lied to. Like Callimachi, Baksh had agreed to conceal Abu Huzaifa's identity and only use his jihadi name in exchange for the interview.

"He wouldn't have talked to us had we not concealed his identity," Baksh says.

CBC News producer Nazim Baksh is wondering how to manage the 'deal' granting Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi anonymity. (CBC)

An offer of anonymity isn't lightly made by news organizations. It is only granted when someone can argue a legitimate risk of harm if they're identified.

"He expressed a real fear that there could be backlash against him," says Baksh. He says the man was worried about reprisals from those who didn't know about the months he'd spent in Syria.

But agreements of confidentiality can be fraught. They also effectively shield people from having to be accountable for their comments.

Now, Baksh says he is left wondering how to manage the "deal" if the man had in fact lied by concealing the key parts of his story that he shared with Callimachi.

"So, it raises a really difficult question that us journalists have, you know, of whether he lied to me or he lied to Rukmini Callimachi, or he lied to both of us," Baksh says.

Callimachi speaks to CBC

In an interview with CBC's Power & Politics Friday, Callimachi said the timing of her interview with Abu Huzaifa may have played a role.

"When we interviewed him back in November of 2016, nobody from CSIS or RCMP had yet interviewed this man," she says.

"They in fact came to his door 12 hours later — not even 12 hours after we left him. So he was speaking to us in this window of time when he essentially thought that he had slipped through the cracks."

New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi, shown in a file photo, said it's important to 'look carefully' at what Abu Huzaifa is saying now through the lens 'that this is a young now facing a real investigation and possibly arrest.' (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)

Since then, Abu Huzaifa has become aware that he could be facing consequences.

"I think that we need to look carefully at what he is saying now through the lens that this is a young man that is now facing a real investigation and possibly arrest," she says.

"And he is very scared of being arrested and, beyond that, he is also scared of having his identity being revealed and harm coming to his family as a result."

Baksh says when he asked Abu Huzaifa about the different accounts, the former ISIS member "started crying." He insisted he hadn't lied to CBC News, but had lied to the New York Times.

"He said, 'I'll submit to a polygraph. I embellished, I was on drugs, I was self-medicating, this was three weeks after I came back, I was so close to these things I imagined that I was the person doing them.'"

CBC News has confirmed that  Abu Huzaifa took part in a polygraph test during meetings with the RCMP this week.

More inconsistencies

The Times too, in the next instalment of its podcast released this week, says it found other inconsistencies in Abu Huzaifa's story, specifically the dates when he says he was in Syria. But they say intelligence sources suggest he may have been there later, some time between late 2014 and early 2015.

The news organization also reports he's under investigation in Canada for "terrorism-related" activities.

As to whether the details of what he did abroad can be independently verified, Callimachi tries to answer that in her podcast, saying: "To basically fact check what happened to him when he was inside the Caliphate, we need somebody who had eyes on him. Somebody in Syria who was there alongside him and who saw what happened."

Baksh says it's a question ultimately best answered by the authorities investigating Abu Huzaifa.

"The ball is in law enforcement's hands now," he said. "They have to determine whether Abu Huzaifa told CBC the truth, or he told New York Times the truth.

"He could be slapped with a peace bond, he could be charged, he could be prosecuted for crimes of joining ISIS and participating in horrendous acts of murder over there against innocent people.

"That is ultimately something I can't decide."

Also this week on The Investigators with Diana Swain, New York Times reporter Scott Shane discusses how he believes news organizations should treat leaks that originate from foreign governments, and CBC's Rosa Marchitelli talks about the advertising traps of fine print.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the New York Times interviewed Abu Huzaifa after he returned to Canada from Syria in 2016. In fact, the Times says it spoke to him several times after the initial interview. The story also said that the Times confirmed through intelligence sources that Abu Huzaifa was in Syria for several months stretching from 2014 to 2015. In fact, the Times says its sources can only suggest that is a window of time in which he may have been there.
    May 21, 2018 10:21 PM ET

About the Author

Diana Swain

Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.