Mubin Shaikh is a 37-year-old practicing Muslim, born and raised in Toronto, whose path has taken him from headbanger and teenage stoner, through military and martial arts training, late adolescent spiritual awakening and radicalization by the Taliban, to burgeoning jihadist, de facto authority on Sharia Law, religious scholar, putative terrorist, undercover police informant, pariah in his own community and finally national hero and academic specializing in Islam and the law. He is a religious adept who for spiritual reasons undertook a one-man counter-jihad – to bring down Muslim extremists in the name of Allah – and in the process helped derail the largest homegrown terrorist plot on western soil since 9/11.
Since the 2001 World Trade Center bombings, Western observers have clung to the talisman of belief that any rational person, when confronted with the kind of religious extremism that could generate such actions, and who looked at it clearly and objectively, would see radical Islam for its inherent flaws and back away from the brink. Of course, this is essentially a tautology – an empirical delusion: Those who subscribe to Western thought will reach Western conclusions. And yet, miraculously, Mubin Shaikh is a Muslim hero who did just that: An idealist who encountered corruption of the ideal, refused to bow to pragmatism and decided instead to do something about it.
Shaikh’s family has assimilated a Western perspective over the course of two generations. His grandfather was a policeman for the British Raj in his native India, and his father was sent to Great Britain at the age of 14 to stay with extended family, then hired by Bell Canada right out of college. Arriving in 1973, he established one of the first local Muslim organizations, and today has his own Toronto mosque. By age nine, Shaikh could recite the entire Koran in Arabic, much to the delight of his father and his congregation.
When he was 8, Shaikh’s third grade class received a visit from an Army Cadet squadron, instilling in him the early seeds of nationalism, patriotism and civic obligation. For five years, from ages 13 to 18, he was an Army Cadet, training in field maneuvers and the presentation of arms. He also studied wrestling, judo and Muay Thai martial arts, and still refers to himself an ass-kicker. Through his high school years, he dressed in garrison boots, cargo pants and dark clothing – “dark but not Columbine black” – and did what high school students everywhere did: Listened to Nirvana and Alice in Chains, smoked pot and did LSD on the weekend and chased high school girls.
At 19, believing himself engaged in a “hedonistic lifestyle that required correction,” he traveled with the evangelical Muslim group Tabligi Jamaat on their first student trip to India and Pakistan in the summer of 1995. There, a chance encounter with some members of the Taliban in Balochistan, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, mutated his recent spiritual awakening into a more militant brand of activism. As if on cue, the Taliban returned later, let him and his friends shoot automatic weapons and boasted of their plans for worldwide jihad.
Pointing to his AK-47, one of them said, “This is how you effect change politically.”
Shaikh returned to Canada with a newly radicalized outlook. He grew his beard long and began dressing in long robes and a black turban like the Taliban. His sudden indoctrination, by his own account, turned him into a zealot and a fanatic. During his first week back, he saw a banner for a town hall meeting that read “No Sharia Courts in Ontario.” Curious how Muslim religious law now might be encroaching on the Canadian justice system, he decided to attend, only to find out the designated Muslim representatives had failed to show up. In his robes and turban, Shaikh became a lightning rod for this free-floating suburban panic, and his statements that day, recorded and uploaded to YouTube, made him an instant spokesperson for Sharia Law in Canada. During this period, he also married a girl he had known in high school – a second-generation Polish immigrant, vegetarian Goth girl with a penchant for punk-metal hybrids like Pantera and Pennywise. Already a devotee of the Sufi poet Rumi, she converted to Islam when they were married and began wearing the Hijab.
When 9/11 happened, hundreds of thousands of Muslims worldwide received the news as a wakeup call, the Taliban’s global jihad suddenly imbuing their lives with deeper purpose. But for Shaikh, sitting in Toronto five hours from the smoking ruins of the towers, his belief system was suddenly thrown into disarray. His heroes had become religious martyrs, even as his conscience refused to sanction their actions. Shaikh’s conclusion was that he had misread the religion. So in the spring of 2002, he took his wife and two children and relocated to Damascus, Syria to pursue Arabic and Islamic Studies. A contractor at his father’s mosque had an empty house there and offered it as a place to stay. What Shaikh found was not the religious utopia he had been counseled to expect, but rather a police state where Indo-Pak Muslims were routinely discriminated against, foreigners of all kinds were subjects of suspicion and AMIDEAST, the American school in Damascus, was the only one who would hire him to teach English. A religious scholar there took an interest in him and proceeded to dismantle his extremist ideology, an act he now refers to as theological deprogramming. He also momentarily entertained the idea of joining a busload of jihadis going to fight in Iran. When two British foreign students he had met in passing blew themselves up at a Tel Aviv nightspot, a government crackdown forced him to return to Canada.
In 2004, Shaikh discovered that the first Canadian to be arrested for terrorism was a childhood friend from Koran school. Believing there to have been some kind of mistake, he contacted the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to offer his support as a character witness. Instead, they asked if he’d be interested in serving as a consultant to provide risk assessments of people and situations within closed ethnic enclaves to which they did not have access – a “walk-in,” in law-enforcement parlance. For a period from 2004 through the end of 2005, Shaikh infiltrated designated targets and provided covert intelligence. In late 2005, he was assigned to investigate a ragtag group of Muslim youth out of Mississauga and Scarborough on the outskirts of Toronto who surrounded a self-appointed emir named Fahim Ahmad 20 years their senior. His violent brand of extremism served as a logical extension to their innate teenage braggadocio, hardcore hip-hop tastes and lifestyle and middle-class quest for authenticity. Ahmad’s enforcer, Zakaria Amara, strategized putting these abstractions into practice, eventually settling on a plan for U-Haul trucks filled with fertilizer bombs to be detonated outside the Toronto Stock Exchange and CSIS headquarters in downtown Toronto and a nearby military base. A second, even more audacious plan involved storming Parliament Hill and beheading as many politicians as possible. This homegrown splinter cell eventually became known as the Toronto 18, and its 11 convictions included three life terms.
At a banquet hall gathering where Shaikh was sent to try and make contact, a stranger sat down next to him and began spouting provocative jihadist rhetoric. This turned out to be Zakaria Amara, who once outside showed Shaikh a rifle magazine full of what he described as “cop-killer bullets.” Impressed with his paramilitary army training and martial arts skills, the group invited him to become an instructor at an upcoming training session to be held in Washago in Western Ontario. When he reported his good fortune to his handlers at the CSIS, they made plans to transfer him to the RCMP and designated him a paid undercover informant. Unlike his recon work with the CSIS, he would now be expected to testify in the resulting trial and his identity made public. (A second informant who exposed the purchase of raw fertilizer, which expedited the arrests and ended the undercover operation, later entered Witness Relocation.) Shaikh eventually consulted a religious scholar on whether it was worth the betrayal he would certainly be accused of by the Muslim community. The scholar clarified matters by asking, “Are you doing this for the people or for God?” His actions were an outgrowth of his religious principles, leaving him no choice in the matter.
Over the course of an eight-month investigation, Shaikh gained the group’s full trust and participated in every aspect of the complicated plot. Following arrests in June 2006, he participated in four legal hearings stretching over five years. (One of the 11 convicted was a friend of the nephew of the man who loaned him the house in Syria.) Whatever larger social benefit he foresaw in having a Muslim interrupt a Muslim terrorist plot turns out to have been greatly exaggerated. He was alienated and demonized in his own community, labeled a parasite and informer and his participation branded as entrapment. For the duration of the trials, which were endlessly postponed by legal filings over a five-year period, the government refused to issue a comment, leaving him to fend for himself. (Although when he was named as a state’s witness, his father-in-law, who had remained distant, got up and hugged him, proclaiming, “All this time I thought you were one of Bin Laden’s guys.”)
Today Shaikh holds a Master of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism through Macquarie University and continues to work with the Toronto Police Service and is working toward his Ph.D. in the Psychology of Terrorism at Liverpool University. He regularly receives death threats, and is the target of several fatwas issued by enterprising Internet commandoes. At a time when data collection and data harvesting promise a means of knowing the unknowable, Mubin Shaikh demonstrates that machine logic in all its wonder can’t judge the intentions of wayward youth lost in the dogmatism of the spirit. It takes human resources at point-blank range to pull that off.