Eight days after the story was published, Mr. Shoumali wrote to Ms. Callimachi and other Times reporters, in an email exchange I obtained, saying that “Syrian contacts are raising more and more questions about the credibility of one of our sources” and that Mr. Abo Aljoud had changed details of the story in a conversation the two men had after the story was published.
Ms. Callimachi emailed back that details of the prison scene were “confirmed independently by European hostages held in the same location or else by the State Department” — a response that seems puzzling, given that the story presented Mr. Abo Aljoud’s observations as his eyewitness account.
The Times was worried enough about that 2014 story to send a different reporter, Tim Arango, back to southern Turkey soon after it was published to re-interview Mr. Abo Aljoud, who gamely repeated his story to him and Mr. Shoumali. I tried again in early October. Like Ms. Callimachi, I don’t speak Arabic and hired another Syrian journalist to ask Mr. Abo Aljoud my questions. In that interview, he told a version of the story that appeared in The Times, but with elements that muddied the clean narrative. He said he had only seen one hostage, not the three The Times suggests. And he said he didn’t realize until after his release that he’d seen any of them — contrary to the impression left by The Times article.
Ms. Callimachi said in an email that she wished that the story had been clearer about the “limitations” of reporting on terrorists. “Looking back, I wish I had added more attribution so that readers could know the steps I took to corroborate details of his account,” she said.
Mr. Kahn, the International editor at the time, continues to stand by the story.
“Questions that were raised about a source in a story Rukmini wrote about American hostages in Syria were thoroughly examined at the time by reporters and editors on the International desk and by The Times’s public editor, and the results of those reviews were published,” he said in an email. “I am not aware of new information that casts doubt on the way it was handled.”
Those questions aside, the article arguably had an impact in Washington, pushing the United States government to reconsider its ban on paying ransom. But the piece itself now rests under an uncomfortable cloud of doubt. It remains on The Times website, with no acknowledgment of the questions surrounding the opening anecdote. The only correction says that the story, when first published, did not make clear that Mr. Abo Aljoud had used a pseudonym.
Last month, that same cloud of doubt descended on Caliphate. And Ms. Callimachi now faces intense criticism from inside The Times and out — for her style of reporting, for the cinematic narratives in her writing and for The Times’s place in larger arguments about portrayals of terrorism.
But while some of the coverage has portrayed her as a kind of rogue actor at The Times, my reporting suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support.
Mousab Alhamadee contributed reporting.