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A Canadian jihadist's U-turn

Canadian-born Mubin Shaikh went from being a pious believer in jihad, basking in the fear he instilled, to working in security intelligence to help foil a terrorist plot. Philip Fine reports from Montreal.

To tell the story of Mubin Shaikh, a radicalized youth turned intelligence operative, is to describe a life of seemingly incongruous identities.

Shaikh, 41, grew up as a typical Canadian kid, attending a multicultural Toronto-area school, but was also subjected to the harsh discipline of an Indian madrasa, where he studied the Quran. In adolescence, he was an army cadet and loved to party, and then became a "born-again" Muslim. Religious devotion would turn to radicalization.

From an early age, Shaikh recognized the contrast of his public school, located in Toronto's immigrant-friendly North York suburb, with its sensitivity to children's needs, and the madrasa, where at night he would study the Quran. He remembers boys being disciplined with a wooden stick to the tops of their hands or a slap in the face.

He was happy to see the back of his Islamic studies, which he completed at the age of 12. His new extracurricular activity, until 19, would be military cadets. A bout of teenage rebellion culminated with his holding a wild, parents-away house party. His strict uncle happened to walk in on it. "He sees all these white people, and girls with beers in their hands and people smoking pot. And he lost it," Shaikh told DW. "He says 'you have defiled the home and you have dishonored the family.'" The uncle spread word to other relatives.

'I found religion'

How would Mubin fix the situation? "I found religion," he says. He knew of other boys whose reputations had been cleaned up with a four-month spiritual trip to Pakistan and India. So, he signed up for the same trip.

Pakistan Islamabad Demonstrationen 16.8.2014 (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Shaikh felt the lure of religion and armed struggle

One day, while in Pakistan, he happened upon robed and bearded men and noticed their weapons. It was 1995, and these were early members of the Taliban. But Shaikh, who was now religious and had field survival techniques under his belt, loved this combination of religion and armed power - he became, as he says, "completely enamored."

Back in Toronto, he would cheer the Taliban's gains in Afghanistan, hang out with Muslims who talked of punishing the "infidels" and, with his beard and robes, felt newly respected. "People were looking at me suspiciously and with fear. And I liked that." His band of brothers were both self-righteous and threatening. As a group of 10, he remembers them going up to someone who had bullied one of the younger recruits. "We said, 'If you bother this guy again we're going to blow up your school and find out where you live and blow your house up, too.'" Three men from that group would end up traveling to Pakistan and Yemen to fight, never to be heard from again.

And then 9/11 happened. And despite Shaikh initially seeing it as a victory, it threatened his thinking. A friend asked him how he could justify the killing of non-combatants. "And then there was an awkward silence. And it was in that couple of seconds that I realized that this was not right."

Post-9/11 awareness

His belief in the global jihadist cause had already been waning. He had fallen in love and was now married.  "If I could be blunt: at this point, I'm having sex," he said, pointing to sexual repression of young men as one of several contributing factors to radicalized youth.

This post-9/11 moment led him to seek new theological answers and he longed to be in the Middle East. With an offer of a house in Syria, he moved his family there, and for a year-and-a-half a religious scholar took him under his wing. "He would go through the verses of the Quran we used to quote as jihadis and he systematically debunked each one of those interpretations that I subscribed to."

After a two-year stay in Syria, he longed to be back in Canada, feeling that it was the best place to live as a Muslim. But that sense was shaken. A week after his return, he saw in the news the name of an old madrasa classmate, Momin Khawaja, arrested on charges of terrorism. "He used to sit next to me and we would play together with our Hot Wheels."

Shaikh actually called up the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to ask how this could have happened. CSIS very quickly became interested in Shaikh's story, of this reformed jihadist. "They said 'I think you could really help us.'"

Intelligence source

Kanada Ottawa Anschlag Parlament Polizei Spezialeinheit 22.10.2014 (Reuters/Chris Wattie)

Shaikh was involved in providing intelligence for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service over a plot to bomb Toronto

He was hired as an agent, to verify information. Nobody from his old circle knew that he had stopped supporting jihadism. "When they saw that I went to Syria, they thought I was stepping it up."

He worked for two years as a CSIS operative, which ended after a seven-month operation that had him joining a group of men who were plotting to bomb several areas of Toronto and storm the Canadian Parliament Building in Ottawa. A three-tonne cache of ammonium nitrate and a bomb detonator were the evidence the RCMP needed to arrest in June 2006 the group of men who were later dubbed the Toronto 18. 

Four years of trials would take their toll on Shaikh. Some in the local Muslim community accused him of entrapment and being a sell-out. This led to a period of self-medication.

He sought out his religion. "I went to Mecca and I pleaded with God to save me. I thought I was doing everything right and this is what was happening?"

He would find his way back. "It's only from the depths of the valley that you appreciate the majesty of the mountain."

Eleven members of the Toronto 18 would be convicted, much of it hinging on his testimony.

Academia is now a major part of Mubin Shaikh's identity. He attained a master's in policing intelligence and counter-terrorism while the trial was taking place and is working on his PhD at the University of Liverpool.

And unlike those friends who impetuously went abroad to fight what they thought was a justified war, it's his identity as someone who thinks things through that likely saved his life.

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