By Jackie Bennion
Toronto is North America's fifth-largest city, known for its pristine streets and relaxed multicultural atmosphere. But last summer, the city was abruptly awakened when news broke of a suspected homegrown terror plot to bomb prominent targets in the city, including government buildings. In the largest security operation carried out under Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act, more than 400 police officers swarmed neighborhood homes, and 17, mostly young, Muslim men were arrested.
An uncomfortable spotlight fell on Toronto's Muslim community. Muslims and non-Muslims alike were asking themselves how such murderous intent could have spawned right on their own doorsteps. These were not well-trained al Qaeda operatives infiltrating the country with false passports but generally well-educated young men from respected, law-abiding homes. They had attended the local suburban high schools. Many were Canadian-born or citizens of long standing. The scale of their alleged threats matched that of homegrown attacks that had already terrorized Europe. Two months after the initial sweep, an 18th man was arrested. All are now facing trial in the Toronto courts.
At the center of the plot's ultimate unraveling is 30-year-old Mubin Shaikh, a self-confessed fundamentalist and a prominent member of the Muslim community, who spent seven months inside the terrorist cell as a police informant. In July 2006, a month after the plot was foiled, Shaikh gave an exclusive interview to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Linden MacIntyre about his time with the group and his audacious, but complicated, role as an informant.
The following narrative, drawn from those interviews, builds a profile of Shaikh's character and motives and describes some of the key events leading up to the 72 hours before the arrests.
Growing Up "Fast"
When CBC reporter Linden MacIntyre asked Mubin Shaikh about his road to piety, Shaikh told him, "It was filled with sin and living life." Shaikh is the son of Indian immigrants who moved to Canada in the 1970s. Soon after he arrived, Shaikh's father took a job at Bell Canada and has worked there ever since.His son attended local schools and, by his own account, weaved effortlessly in and out of his own and his adopted cultures. "In grades seven and eight, I'm the guy reading the Lord's Prayer on the P.A. In the Christmas pageant, I'm one of the Wise Men, you know," Shaikh says.
In high school, Shaikh was one of the few Indian Muslims to be part of the popular clique. "We were just the coolest guys in school; the cheerleaders were our girlfriends," he recalls. "None of my friends were Muslims. They were all white, Portuguese, Italian." Growing up in the middle-class neighborhood of St. Clair, Ontario, Shaikh showed few signs that he would end up on the radical side of his family's faith. He tells McIntyre that he took all kinds of drugs and lived life hard and fast. "When you're going at that speed and that intensity, it's like rocket fuel. It burns really nice, but it burns out really quickly." Realizing he was on a hedonistic path, he started searching for something else.
Shaikh's interest in Islam developed in high school. Religious studies was part of the curriculum, but Shaikh began his own analysis, comparing Islam to other religions taught in school, particularly Judaism and Christianity. "I remember thinking I didn't want to be a Muslim just because my family was Muslim. I wanted to choose carefully the right religion to follow. I found that Islam was the one that fit for me. It could not be dislodged as the others could." He remembers as a student "intellectualizing and bingeing on religion." But he didn't want his growing fervor to be misinterpreted. "I didn't want to do it so that people could say, `Oh look at this religious guy.' I wanted to do it for my sake, for God's sake, alone." By now, he'd adopted the traditional Muslim robes and a distinctive full beard. His practice soon became more observant than his father's and, he says, that of most Muslims around him.
9/11 and the Middle East
In 1995, still a teenager, Shaikh traveled to India and Pakistan and then to Britain. By 1999, he had met and married Joanne, a Roman Catholic with Polish roots who had recently converted to Islam.After the marriage, Shaikh set off again, this time traveling to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Israel, where he says he visited all the Judeo-Christian holy sites. "I found the Middle East a very, very powerful place," Shaikh recalls. "You could see that the earth was just dying to speak but was being kept quiet."
By the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Shaikh was working for a Toronto company contracted by the federal government. In the aftermath of the events in New York, Canadian security was tight, and, for the first time, Shaikh felt his identity questioned.
"What hurt me the most is that this is home for me. I was one of the boys. Now I had become a stranger in my own land, my own home. That's what really saddened me." He also saw the effect it was having on his wife, a petite woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, who also wears a veil -- "something that marks her as an outsider," Shaikh says.
Like other young Muslims stung by the suspicion following 9/11, Shaikh says he grew increasingly angry. "I went through that phase of `I've got to do something with my own hands.' Somehow, it became interpreted as acts of violence. I had this newfound expression of Islam." He says he was ready to go to Chechnya to Afghanistan and wanted to engage in jihad activity because "it felt like the right thing to do."
As a family man with four young children, looking back on this time, Shaikh chalks up his latent anger to a phase of youth, "a time when you are more prone to violence and emotional thought and [you are] thinking less rationally." He says his martial arts training and time with the Canadian Army Cadets made it easier for him to physically accommodate these emotional reactions.
"The only reason I didn't act back then was because I had people I could talk to who could correct my understanding." Shaikh spent time with his spiritual adviser, examining the extremist rhetoric calling for violence. "He would give you verses from the Koran and statements of the prophet, and it would totally debunk what I was thinking."
Shaikh had become well known in Toronto's Muslim circles. He worked as an official at the Al-Noor Mosque and Islamic Center, where he ran the arbitration center. Through his work there, he also became an advocate in Ontario for Sharia law, something he and his wife, Joanne, felt would help Muslims resolve family legal issues, particularly as their religious codes and traditions were often at odds with Western laws.
Infiltrating the Terror Cell
Shaikh first became involved with the accused Toronto group after reading of a friend's arrest.He had just returned from two years of living in Syria, when he found out that Mohammad Momin Khawaja had been arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity. The two had grown up together. Khawaja`s father taught them both when they were young.
"I phoned the CSIS [the Canadian intelligence services] and said, `Listen, I know the family. I know this guy, Momin. Is there some way that I can help? I've grown up with him. I don't know him to be like this, or his brother.'"
Shaikh had already been working with the police, trying to improve ethno-cultural religious awareness in the community.
The CSIS immediately saw his potential for infiltrating the group, which they'd had under surveillance for some time. Shaikh also thought he was the best person for the job. "I have a solid foundation in Islam. I'm born and raised here. Toronto is home. I understand what concerns [the police] have. But as a Muslim, I understand what concerns Muslims have." Shaikh says he believed he could serve the interests of "both the state and the heart of Islam."He was also well aware that spying on his own community was "kind of dirty" work but still felt a sense of duty.After passing a lie detector test at the CSIS, he told his spiritual adviser of his new role. "I needed guidance from him on this issue of being a provocateur," Shaikh recalls.His adviser gave him one piece of advice. "He told me, `If you set them up or entrap them or encourage them, I will accuse you of hypocrisy.'"
In the eyes of Islam, hypocrisy is one of the worst insults a person can levy. But Shaikh took it in stride. "I knew that throughout my work with the authorities, if I was ever instructed to do something to this effect, which I was not, I would not [do it]."
The Perfect Man for the Job
Because of his natural sociability and bravado, it was easy for Shaikh to begin mixing with members of the suspected group. "I'm sociable. I like talking to people. I'm extroverted, you know. With these guys … what happened … I'm telling you, the divine hand is behind all of this."
His first test came when he met some of the young men at a banquet hall in Toronto. The young alleged ringleader, Fahim Ahmad, discovered that Shaikh had spent six years in the Canadian Cadets and had firearms training.Shaikh took out his wallet and showed Fahim his gun possession and acquisition license. "His eyes just lit up," Shaikh recalls. At one point, Fahim asked him, "Is jihad fordanin or fordkifaya?" "What he was asking me is, `Is jihad a communal obligation or is it an individual obligation?' If I say it's a communal obligation, I'm implicitly saying I don't need to be a jihadi. But if I say it's an individual obligation, then I'm saying I can be a jihadi. So I said, `It's fordanin.' And that did it."
Shaikh says he was pulled aside and given the jihadi pitch, the list of reasons for acts of violence: events happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, the raping of Muslim women, the killing of Muslim children, and other emotionally charged issues. He reported the incident back to the CSIS and told them that he thought Fahim was "a time bomb waiting to go off."
The Plot to Bomb Ontario's Parliament, Kidnap and Behead
The genesis of the terror plot was laid out in Toronto's Sunnybrook Park. The group met there to discuss the people and training needed to "hit Parliament." Shaikh says he was surprised by how the discussion was delivered "with such calculating indifference to innocent life." "That really bothered me," he remembers. Huddled together as co-conspirators, the group talked about storming the provincial parliament in Toronto, holding MPs hostage, then beheading them one by one. They told Shaikh that they would execute the plan unless Canadian troops were pulled out of Afghanistan and Muslim prisoners were released from prisons across Canada. They would also storm the CBC building in downtown Toronto, he was told, and take control of the cameras to broadcast their message.
But none of this could happen until the group found a trainer. "I just so happened to be the guy," Shaikh says.That day in the park, he remembers, was the first time he saw the sort of zeal that could spell potential disaster for the Muslim community. "[Fahim] is the type of guy that would drive a van right up to Front Street and the CBC building and take out a rocket-propelled grenade and hit the buildings," Shaikh says.
If he had ever been on the fence about his own convictions, Shaikh was in no doubt now. "I was thinking about the interests of Islam and Muslims, over and above Canadian interests. But it just so happens that they're complementary. God says in the Koran, `If you save one life justly, it is as if you saved all of humankind.'"
Armed with information gathered from the Internet, the group headed to a remote area about three hours out of Toronto to begin training. Fahim had instructed the group to bring fatigues and other supplies. Fahim's dedication impressed Shaikh. "He was in shape; he was committed. He had everything going for him, and he was a serious guy."The others showed him respect, but Fahim kept his distance from Shaikh, who was there to train the troops, not as a foot soldier.
It was well below freezing, and the ground was thick with snow. Shaikh recalls the young men pinning pictures of Hindu gods to the trees for target practice - using a grab bag of munitions, from paintball bullets and air pellets to real ammunition. He could see the joke in this juvenile exercise, but he also thought it was sinister. "You could see it was something that kids would do. But it was also callous and indifferent."For him, he says, it brought home the hallmark of jihadis: "No tolerance for other religions, no tolerance for differences at all." What angered him most was talk regarding the possibility that Muslims might be killed in attacks on the West - it is their own fault, he was told, for living in the land of the infidels. "All I could see was my son's body or my friend's child's body on the road somewhere, and Fahim saying to me, `He shouldn't have been here anyway.'"
Shaikh saw that this was more than a group of boys playing weekend warriors in the snow. "I would have to say that these were fruitcakes but with the capacity to do some real damage." During the 10 or so days they were outdoors, they learned "formation movements, mock attack scenarios, running the ridge, doing obstacle course, the whole nine yards," as Shaikh put it -- all under the watchful eye of the Canadian police.There were also bursts of unexpected farce amid the strange goings-on in the wilderness. Arguments broke out among the leaders about breaches in security. According to Shaikh, several of the young men started receiving cell phone calls from loved ones back home, wondering where they were.Shaikh thought the youngest in the group was only 14.
Building a Bomb
Once ammonium nitrate entered the group's conversations, the notion of creating a powerful explosive wasn't far behind. Shaikh says he didn't know about the group's attempt to purchase 3 tons of the chemical until after the plot was exposed, but he does remember meeting Zacaria Amara and Fahim at a local park, where Amara showed them a detonator he had built. "He brought it in a bag.He said that he could build a bomb right now if he wanted to. But he was just in the stages of experimenting and making sure it wasn't going to blow up in his face."
Amara, another leading member of the group, had studied electronics at college, so it was no surprise to Shaikh that he could build such a device."All you need is a little circuit. And the phone thing works, right? You call the phone. It discharges an electrical circuit. You channel the circuit, Boom! You've got a bomb."
News of this, along with alarm bells sounding from other intelligence, was enough to make the Canadian police and intelligence services act.
By now, Shaikh had spent seven months with the group, reporting every important detail to authorities.
At the beginning of June 2006, as the police prepared to move in on the young mens' homes, Shaikh warned the police to tread carefully, versing them on how to be sensitive to the community -- treat the women wearing hijabs in the families with respect; make sure women police officers are present.But, he recalls, the point he stressed most was how the police should react during the press conference following the arrests. "Say something to the effect that we could not have done this without the [Muslim] community," Shaikh remembers saying."And I'm glued to the TV, and I'm not hearing any of it," he says. The police didn't want to immediately reveal that there was a Muslim informant inside the group, his police handlers later told Shaikh. "It was for my own protection."
Shaikh was taken to a safe house immediately after the arrests, while the police evaluated threats to his safety. "They were telling me,`No, we need at least 30 days to do an initial threat assessment and then [consider] the whole witness protection [plan]. Oh, you might have to go here. We'll give you a new identity -- this and that," recalls Shaikh. The other police informant helping the RCMP in the case had already been offered witness protection and had taken it. But Shaikh declined.
"I'm like, What?No-no-no-no. I am not divorcing myself from my social circles because some people think. … I don't feel bad about what I did because I did nothing wrong, and I'm not going to hide and feel guilty about it." Shaikh felt strongly thata Muslim needed to be seen to havehelped the authorities thwart an attack. "I want other people to see that if you think it is Islamic to turn the other way, then I want nothing to do with your Islam."
The Community Reacts
With the suspects now in custody, marched in under heavy guard and amid a frenzy of media coverage, and Shaikh soon after "outing" himself as the "mole," public reaction was mixed. Messages of support for his "heroics" poured in to radio stations and the CBC Web site, but there was also dissent. Some Muslim groups condemned his actions, saying that, as a prominent member of his community, he would have served it better by trying to dissuade the young men from their plans rather than helping train them to carry them out. Others from the community used the words "entrapment" and "betrayal," and some were simply uncomfortable with the fact he was a paid informant. (Shaikh revealed in an interview last summer that he had been paid US$68,000. Since then, the Canadian press has reported that a further payment was settled in the region of CDN$300,000 for his informant work.)
Of the 18 who now stand charged in trials just getting under way, Shaikh told McIntyre in the month after their arrests that he believed not all the young men in the group were really serious."Some of them were committed; they were ready." The adults, he says, were adults. They knew what they were doing. "But the others, they didn't really, truly grasp the significance of what they were getting into. They didn't. They had no idea." However, he concedes, they were well along the wrong path. "They were misguided, ignorant, you know, not really doing too well in school, not inclined toward learning. They were content with being foot soldiers because they felt that they were serving a purpose."
But for someone like Fahim, Shaikh says, his background is more charged. "His parents grew up in the war generation. He's from Afghanistan. He was born there. He came here at an early age. So that's part of his culture. That's his background."
In essence, Shaikh blew the whistle on young men whose backgrounds and beliefs are not that different from his own. But his motive for not stepping over that line, he says, comes back to a simple love of his faith and his country. "I was in the Army Cadets. I still remember things like February 15, the day the official Canadian flag was proclaimed. This is home for me. I can't have things blowing up in my backyard. There are values that I live by -- it's not that they're Islamic or they're Western; it's that they're human. That's what it comes down to."
From Informant to Witness
Shaikh's wife, Joanne Siska, told the CBC shortly after the arrests that her husband "knows he did the right thing." But she also says he's worried about the outcome, "not only with regards to these brothers but with regards to Muslims in general. It's whether he can take everything that's being thrown at him, everything that is being thrown at Muslims in the world, and whether he can deal with that, or whether he himself will turn and, you know. …"
Despite the glare of public scrutiny -- which will only get stronger as Shaikh becomes a key witness in the trials -- he says he has no regrets. "I would do it 50 times over because all I can think about is that verse from God himself in the Koran: `One life you save, it's as if you've saved all of mankind.' I know my reward is with him. If somebody takes my life, then I lose my life for the greatest thing, and I become a martyr. If I could be given the gift of martyrdom, what more could I ask than that?"
Sources: Interviews by Linden MacIntyre with Mubin Shaikh and Shaikh's wife, Joanne Siska (July 2006); the CBC Web site; The Christian Science Monitor; The Toronto Star.