Cutting through the disinformation problem in terrorism

Terrorists seek to sow fear and angst: it is important to gather as much data as possible to separate facts from lies.

It is a fact that terrorists lie. A lot. About a lot of things.

Usually the untruths have to do with what they did. Groups will claim responsibility for acts of extreme violence in many countries. This is of course natural as they are seeking to portray themselves as all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful. They want us to believe that they can strike anywhere, anytime. They would prefer us to react in ways that range from “be afraid, be very afraid” to “when you least expect it, expect it”.

In reality, there are terrorist attacks which some organisations will maintain were their handiwork when in all likelihood they were not. A group such as Islamic State (ISIS), for example, will say that a ‘lion of ISIS’ or a ‘soldier of the Caliphate’ was behind a suicide bombing or a knife attack. When we unpack all the information available we come to the conclusion that the perpetrator was most likely not ISIS: sure, there may have been some degree of ‘inspiration’ but nothing on the order of a direct tie.

If you are a terrorist group you don’t care. It is not as if anyone will seriously take you to task for stretching the truth. Your shareholders will not protest. You will not be hauled up before the Better Business Bureau for false advertising. No, your claim will remain out there and as far as you are concerned the more doubt it spreads about where you are and what you are capable of, the better.

There is another type of lie though. When security forces capture a terrorist they immediately deny any connection with the group with which they are allegedly affiliated. They claim to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Colleagues of mine at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) used to tell me that every Al Qaeda (AQ) member they questioned always responded invariably with either “I just drove the bus” or “I just served tea”.


Then we have Shehroze Chaudhry. The Canadian boasted in an interview with the New York Times terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi in 2018 that not only had he been part of ISIS but that he had personally killed several people. He described in some detail what he had done.

This was a remarkable series of reporting that got a lot of attention. And it turns out it was 100% bullshit. Chaudhry has been charged by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) with “terrorism hoax” (you sure don’t see THAT crime very often!) and a NYT review has supported the contention that he never was part of ISIS or any other terrorist group.

This was an institutional failing. This was a big story for us. A major story. I think this guy, we now believe, was a con artist who made up most if not all he told us.

Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times

In many ways I feel for Ms. Callimachi and those who believed Chaudhry and his story. Many fell for the lies and now look very silly. This cannot be comfortable for any of them.

Are there any lessons in all of this? Absolutely!

One is the primordial need to corroborate all information using many independent sources as we do in intelligence (though not always: does the Iraq invasion source Curveball ring any bells?). Another is to treat all data as suspect first and foremost. This can be tough when you think you have a real hot item (in fact, the series Caliphate which was based on Chaudhry’s fantasies won several awards).

Thirdly, this whole affair speaks to the relations between intelligence and the media/scholars. The former says next to nothing to the latter, preferring to hide behind secrecy (“I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you!”). The latter prefer not to talk to the former as some in both industries have a deep-seated distrust of the spies.

There has to be a better way.

I would like to think that journalists and scholars have a duty to talk to intelligence and law enforcement when they believe a crime has been, or is about to be, committed.

Intelligence and law enforcement could perhaps tell the press and the ivory tower that a certain line of pursuit is not worth it.

Whatever you feel about all this there is a lot of embarrassment to go around. I hope Ms. Callimachi can recover as I have enjoyed her reporting over the years (and even had a chance to meet her in New York several years ago).

I am fiercely proud of the stories I have broken on the ISIS beat. But as journalists, we demand transparency from our sources, so we should expect it from ourselves. I caught the subject of our podcast lying about key aspects of his account and reported that. I also didn’t catch other lies he told us, and I should have.

Rukmini Callimachi

But if there is one thing we should all keep in mind it is this. Terrorists, and even wannabe terrorists, lie. A lot.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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