Unmaking an Islamic Terrorist

  • Posted 09.22.16
  • NOVA

Mubin Shaikh went from young army cadet to self-radicalized Jihadist. For six years, he devoted himself to the cause, travelling far down the road to extremism—and possibly violence. But the events of September 11, 2001 made him change course. Now, as a PhD candidate in psychology and tactical decision making, Shaikh advocates and advises de-radicalization programs in an effort to spread the true meaning of the Quran. Hear his full story in “15 Years of Terror,” streaming online

Running Time: 11:50


MUBIN SHAIKH: One day I was walking and I saw some guys from afar…beards, turban. As I started to come close I realized these guys are armed. They have rocket-propelled grenades and machines guns, belts of ammunition. And so as I gave them my spiel of this is how you change the world, they listened politely and then he picked up his AK47 and he says, “This is how you change the world and we’re doing that right now.” And I thought, “Wow!” And I was completely enamored by them at that stage. I was bit by the Jihadi bug as they call it.

This is where I grew up. I lived on the fifth floor of that building.

MILES O’BRIEN: The son of immigrants from India, Mubin Shaikh, grew up, and still lives in the Silverthorne neighborhood about 10 miles from the downtown Toronto.

SHAIKH: It’s actually largely Italian, Portuguese, like European background. But you have now people from all over, blacks, Asians, brown Asians.

O’BRIEN: He lived in several worlds. His parents are observant, conservative Muslims.

SHAIKH: I lived like a cliché high school life. I wasn’t bullied, I wasn’t picked on. We were the cool kids at the school.

O’BRIEN: He was also a young army cadet.

He was on his way to being a multicultural alloy forged in the Canadian melting pot.

But then, a seemingly minor event changed everything in his life. He threw a party behind his parents back and got caught.

SHAIKH: And I thought to myself, “How can I possibly salvage my reputation?” And then it clicked. I have to get religious. Because I could see looking back in a cultural context, people who were religious were looked upon with respect.

O’BRIEN: Mubin traveled India and Pakistan. For six months he interacted with Muslims, exploring his faith.

SHAIKH: You would to stay in a Mosque. You would encourage with a come and pray, to listen to your talks, walk around the local area, proselytizing to other Muslims. Telling them, “Look the way to succeed in this life and the next life is to follow the commandments of Allah as shown by the way of the way of the Prophet, alayhi salaam.”

One day I was walking and I saw some guys from afar, beards, turban. As I started to come close I realized these guys are armed. They have rocket-propelled grenades and machines guns, belts of ammunition. So as I gave them my spiel of this is how you change the world, they listened politely and then he picked up his AK47 and he says, “This is how you change the world and we’re doing that right now.”  And I thought, “Wow!” And I was completely enamored by them at that stage. I was bit by the Jihadi bug as they call it.

They’re offering this totalitarian solution that has very neatly defined boxes and who is legitimate and who is not, it’s very orderly. For somebody who is in this chaos, that order is worth its weight in gold.

O’BRIEN: When Mubin Shaikh came home in 1995, he was far down the road to extremism...and, possibly, violence.

SHAIKH: I move into more politically active Muslim types, further deepening and solidifying and anchoring of my views. I recruit other kids. I'm preaching this Jihadi mentality.

O’BRIEN: For the next six years, he devoted himself to the cause—and wondered how he might join the fight. He saw friends go to the middle east—some did not return. And he had opportunity to go himself…

SHAIKH: Now I was exposed to people who could get me to Yemen. Just say the word Mubin and we’ll have you go. And I was on that line and I could have at any point gone.

O’BRIEN: He was a radical, but a radical with some nagging doubts.

SHAIKH: The things that kept me from that was the stable home environment. Both my parents were there. I had a relatively good education. I had a very good cross-cultural experience.

So the idea of hating kafir, non-Muslims, to the point where I can just kill them wantonly, that was difficult to get around because they were my friends. They were people that I knew and I interacted with.

O’BRIEN: On the morning of September 11, 2001, Mubin Shaikh woke up a radicalized extremist—he had not committed any acts of violence, but he was a true believer in Islamic-inspired terrorism.

SHAIKH: Everyone remembers where they were. I mean it was a life changing event. I was watching it on TV with my wife. People were calling my house saying, “Hey, did you see what happened?” The joke was—my wife says, “Are you sure you didn’t have anything to do with this?”

I was back and forth with even my bad friends. And even from them there was this awkward silence where somebody said, “Yeah, but those are innocent people. How do you justify that?” And there was this moment where nobody knew what to say, that was the moment I decided I'm out of this. It’s ridiculous.

O’BRIEN: So he booked another trip to the Middle East. This time to Syria…to further study Islam. He met the right imam at the right time. Mubin Shaikh had what psychologists call a cognitive opening.

SHAIKH: We started talking and he realized that I was this western kid looking the way that I look, big beard, long robe. And for whatever reason, decided, “Hey, I'm going to work on this guy.” I spent a lot of time with him and led me through the Quran, man, verse by verse by verse.

O’BRIEN: As he learned the context of these critical verses, he saw the Quran in an entirely different light.

SHAIKH: I always give this example of Chapter 9 Verse 5. You know, it says, “Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them.” The Sheikh who taught me and said to me, “Do you normally start from verse five or do you start from verse one?  Let’s start from verse one.” And then you get the context, “This is about the treaty that we had with the Pagans at that time.” So it’s a very specific content. Then verse four the one right before five says, “This is not apply to those polytheists who did not break the treaty and did not fight you because you’re Muslims.”

By the end of the two years, I realized, “Man, I had it wrong all along. Now I'm empowered with this new understanding that I have.” And the guy told me, he says, “Go back. Go back and teach it to people and keep your people safe. This is not our way. Show them the way.”

O’BRIEN: He went back to Toronto with every intention to do just that, but then, another unexpected twist.

March 29, 2004: British police foil a plot to plant fertilizer bombs throughout the United Kingdom. Mubin Shaikh watches the news and is shocked to learn he went to Quran school as a young child with one of the terrorists: Momin Khawaja.

SHAIKH: I contacted the Intelligence Service to say, “Listen, this must be a mistake. I know the family. I know these people. This has to be a mistake.” So of course on the other end, the Intelligence Service was like, “Well it’s no mistake. But now that you're saying that you know the family, maybe we could come and talk to you about that.”

O’BRIEN: They recruited him to be an undercover operative. In late 2005, he infiltrated a group of would-be terrorists who would later become known as the “Toronto 18.”

SHAIKH: The idea was three one-ton ammonium nitrate truck bombs, two in the City of Toronto. One hitting the Stock Exchange, the other hitting the Intelligence Service building. That was one idea. Another idea was to have some car bombs go off in downtown Ottawa, in the capital city, distract first responders and then we, in a small team would assault the Parliament building. We would take members of Parliament hostage. We would behead them one by one.

O’BRIEN: For 6 months, former army cadet Mubin Shaikh helped the would be terrorists learn how to fire weapons -  build a bomb and conduct combat training in a remote area of Ontario.

They were arrested as they unloaded what they thought were bags of ammonium nitrate.

SHAIKH: At the end of the day, you know if they were able to do all these things on their own, it would have been a catastrophic terrorist attack. And even if they weren't able to do all that, even if they just decided to go with 50%, you would still have many people dead.

O’BRIEN: So are you proud of your accomplishment then?

SHAIKH: Absolutely, of course. We don’t put up with this stuff. I mean this is why when we say, we mean it. Islam is against terrorism. We will stop Muslims from doing it.

O’BRIEN: In Toronto, Mubin Shaikh’s days as an undercover operative for the authorities are over.

He is a family man...the father of 5 children.

His purpose now seems clear—he is pursuing a PhD in psychology and tactical decision making. He advocates and advises de-radicalization programs.

It is intervention aimed at those who feel the same pull he did in high school.

SHAIKH: You have to show them what they’re doing is actually not Islam at all, it’s this other thing that they’ve created thinking that it’s Islam, thinking that it’s a solution but in fact it’s the problem. My intention here is to put seeds of truth inside, so that later on when they go over these things in their head, they’ll come back to these arguments.



Written, Produced, and Narrated by
Miles O'Brien
Edited by
Michael H. Amundson
Meredyth Lamm
Brian Trulio
Cameron Hickey
Brian Horrell
Original Footage
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2016
Additional Video
Mubin Shaikh
WGBH Stock Sales


(main image: Mubin Shaikh)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2016

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