True Spies Episode 10: Undercover Jihadi
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 10: Undercover Jihadi.
MUBIN SHAIKH: I just did what I thought was the right thing to do. There’s a famous verse in the Quran: “Stand up for justice”, even if it’s against the rich, the poor, your parents, your relatives, even yourselves. And when you are called to give testimony in court, give that testimony. And if you don’t give it, then God is aware of what you do.
NARRATOR: How do you become a spy on the frontline of a critical operation where hundreds of civilian lives are at stake? A glittering career in the US Marine Corps? A first in Modern Languages from Oxford? How about a stint in the Taliban? This is the story of how a Muslim born and raised in Canada was radicalized at age 18 and set on the path of extremism, only to have a dramatic change of heart and play a pivotal role in preventing what could have been one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in Canada’s history.
MUBIN SHAIKH: My name is Mubin Shaikh. I'm a former extremist turned undercover operative for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
NARRATOR: Mubin’s journey from jihadi to undercover spy begins in his childhood. Born in the 70s, from an early age he had a split identity, living between two worlds: the socially and religiously conservative world of his immigrant parents and the permissive society of his neighbors and school friends.
MUBIN SHAIKH: The kind of teenager I was growing up here in Toronto, Canada was pretty typical. In fact, the environment in which I grew up was a complete contrast - going to public school by day and in the evening going to Quran school. And the Quran school is a complete difference from the public school I went to during the day. I mean, public school was boys and girls mixing, caring, nurturing environment, as opposed to the evening time when we would go to the Koran school and it was boys on one side, girls on the other side. And if you made mistakes while you were reading, they would just slap you, hit you with sticks, put you in stress positions, and so it was very different. Very different.
NARRATOR: As the eldest son, Mubin was expected to continue his Madrasa studies, live up to his father’s reputation in the community, and, eventually, step into his father’s shoes as a Muslim leader. Was this what he wanted?
MUBIN SHAIKH: I was struggling to navigate this space between having one foot in this Western world, that I'm living in and born and raised in, and then one foot in this cultural community, this religious community, which was trying to be separationist from that worldview or that reality. So it was difficult to have to navigate that space and have to ultimately decide, which of the two I was going to choose.
NARRATOR: He tried to be a good son. He had learned to recite the Quran by heart, but the pull of the Western lifestyle of his friends was just too much. He wanted to fit in, to be an ordinary teenager. It’s the 90s. Grunge, the rave scene, and hip hop were all cool. And Mubin so wanted to be cool. And what do you do when your parents are away and you want to impress your friends? You throw a house party. For Mubin this party was to have far-reaching consequences.
MUBIN SHAIKH: So, the house party was the result of a culmination, I guess, of this identity that I thought I was supposed to have, as having these non-Muslim friends. It was a great evening. Very typical, all my friends were spread throughout the house. People were just doing what kids do right at parties. Music in different rooms and people that are drinking, and they're smoking, and having a real good time until suddenly my uncle bursts through the front door.
NARRATOR: Mubin’s uncle grabbed him and struck him across the face, yelling to his friends to get out. His friends fled, some jumping from balconies, some running out grabbing bottles and joints as they ran. Party over. For Mubin, this was the worst thing that could happen.
MUBIN SHAIKH: My uncle immediately got on the phone calling for reinforcements. And then, it was basically: “Look at what your son has done.” Or: “Look at what your nephew has done.” I could feel my dreams just go out the window.
NARRATOR: Mubin had shamed and dishonored his family, his faith, and his community. He had defiled his home. This is where people pray, his uncle had told him. How could he redeem himself? Put yourself in Mubin’s shoes. What would you do to erase the guilt you felt, to restore honor to your family, and become the son they wanted?
MUBIN SHAIKH: And so this is what would prompt me to now decide I need to make a choice. I need to make things right with my family. And the only way I'm going to do that is to get super-religious. In my mind, that meant a number of things. That meant, number one, I had to cut off my friends. Now, it was drastic, of course. It was an extreme choice in one sense because it's going from one and all the way to the other. And the background in which I grew up allowed for this kind of religiosity to be manifested through a particular religious group. This group is called the Tablighi Jamaat. And Tablighi Jamaat... they're not extremists. They are fundamentalists. And what they call for is an immersion program, if you will, of four months in total. Two months in India. Two months in Pakistan, where you would spend every day in a local mosque, just living in the mosque, staying in the mosque, and basically traveling to other mosque locations. You would do this for a four-month period. And so I decided that what I needed was to go on this four-month trip.
NARRATOR: The mission of the Tablighi Jamaat was to increase the number of believers. Mubin was to visit mosques and go to Muslim homes, door-to-door, and reinforce the belief and practice of Muslims. Now 19 and trying to be the good Muslim his family wanted him to be, he was diligent, he was young, and looking for a path to redemption. He spent two months in India where he excelled. He was validated, felt successful. He was becoming the person he was supposed to be. His next deployment was in Quetta, Pakistan. Mubin arrived, tired and dirty from a long journey on a train where he had slept sitting up on a wooden bench, back against the wall. Seeing the Quetta mosque, it was like a mirage. Cool tiles and a giant water reservoir where people made their ritual ablutions before prayers. Mubin didn’t know that this place, Quetta, was later the infamous headquarters of al-Qaeda. One day, on a trip to a nearby village, a fateful encounter took place.
MUBIN SHAIKH: I remember looking out and seeing this walled compound out of which all this foliage had been growing. And I just thought it was odd because in the middle of this almost desert-like society, desert-like geography, there's this all this greenery growing out of this place. So I thought: “What is this place?” So, as I came closer, suddenly I could see - just as I bend around the corner - there are several men squatting, encroached onto the ground in the shade of the foliage. And so I came closer to them and that's when I realized that: “Hold on a second, these guys are not other Tablighis. These guys are armed.” And I could see on the ground in front of them, that they were just loaded with weapons - AK47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and belts of ammunition. And, I remember thinking to myself at that moment: “Wow. These are like the heroes of old that I've read about.” And this 19-year-old kid who's seeking this new identity with a religious flavor to it, and now seeing these guys in front of me, everything was coming together now.
NARRATOR: These ‘heroes’ with machine guns told Mubin he could change the world with violence. And Mubin was listening.
MUBIN SHAIKH: And, for a moment, I kind of thought to myself: “Wow, what would it be like to live with these people and to be with these people and to be fighting the good fight that they were fighting?” And that, for me, was the highlight and the pinnacle of my trip. Because now, basically, I had been introduced to their world and I liked what I saw.
NARRATOR: “Jihad,” the soldiers had shouted, raising their guns in the air. “Jihad is how you change the world.” Mubin didn’t know that he had just met members of the Taliban who were soon to fight in Afghanistan and install an Islamic state. After his four months in India and Pakistan, Mubin returned home to Canada. He thought a lot about the soldiers he had met and how he could be like them. He started to associate with other extremists, recruiting others to ‘the cause’. He felt he had a duty to take up arms and join in jihad. He began to wear his religious robes full-time. He now had a long beard and wore a turban. He left the Tablighi Jamaat because they were not political enough. He became a Salafist jihadi and immersed himself in their separationist politics.
MUBIN SHAIKH: So, coming back to Canada, joining up with these more hardcore Salafi types, suddenly, my worldview is inundated with knowledge and awareness of political disputes that were taking place around the world, in the Muslim world - and especially wars, wars in the Muslim world. In the mid-90s, when the war in Chechnya happened, this was really on the top of our minds. I mean, we were always talking about these conflicts and this one in particular. And one of the curious things about the Chechen War is that this is when the first real jihadi videos started to come out. They were in the form of CDs, of course, but this was a series of CDs depicting the war in Chechnya. The militants had collected all this video footage of Russian armored personnel carriers being attacked in ambush attacks, Russian soldiers being engaged in firefights, and shot dead. And, unfortunately, even beheading videos. And so these were the kinds of videos that we were consuming day in and day out. And we thought to ourselves that this was our mission in life, to effectively aspire to become warriors like we saw in the videos to effectively for our life to imitate the art that we were seeing on video.
NARRATOR: But then in 2001, the 9/11 attacks happened in America. Initially, Mubin celebrated.
MUBIN SHAIKH: And my immediate and initial reaction is Allahu Akbar. And, of course, Allahu Akbar can be read in two ways, right? One is ‘yes’, or the second being ‘oh my God’. And to be honest, I had both feelings and both sentiments in mind. I did feel a little bit of elation. I did feel that: “Okay, good, something bad has happened to the US. The US is bad, therefore, any bad that happens to it is good.” Right? That was the logic that we had. And that whole day and the way that the day transpired really, really affected me. So, for example, as I went upstairs and back to my workplace, I could see the stress that people had on their faces. One of my colleagues, she and I would debate religion all the time during work, and now she was softly crying. She was definitely not wanting to talk to me. And I'm realizing that: “Look at the impact that this is having on people.” And she was softly crying because she was trying to reach her father, who lives and works in New York. And I'm still trying to navigate within myself. Trying to make sense of this. That... is this actually a good thing? It doesn't look like it's a good thing.
NARRATOR: The responses of his co-workers forced Mubin to reconsider his commitment to the so-called ‘cause’.
MUBIN SHAIKH: That's one thing, to be fighting the disbelievers who have invaded your homeland. That I understand. But flying a plane into a building, of non-combatants on top of that? Like, how do you justify that? And so this is what would force me to have to confront the fact that I came to subscribe to an ideology that basically produced this. And then I realized that there wasn't a justification for this, that at some point, I went wrong because I came to subscribe to this worldview that produced this horrible act. And so this is when I resolved and told myself that what I needed to do now was study the religion properly.
NARRATOR: So, in 2002 Mubin decides to leave Canada. He sells all his belongings and, now with a wife and two small children, he leaves the country to go to Syria to study, to learn more about his faith, to become an Islamic scholar. He signs up for lessons in Arabic at Damascus University. It’s here that he meets a young Islamic teacher who challenges Mubin’s extremist ideology.
MUBIN SHAIKH: And I arrived in Syria. And one of the things I realize is, it's not an overtly Muslim-looking place. I mean, yes, I saw a lot of hijabs, but the way that I dressed, I really didn't see many people in Syria dressing. This full beard, long robes, and turban were something that really scholars would dress like. And so, here I am, this hardcore Muslim-looking guy showing up in Syria. First, we started with introducing ourselves in the classroom. And in the Arab world, in the Muslim world, you use what's called your kunya. Your kunya is basically your nickname, if you will, but it's more than a nickname. So, for example, if your son's name is Adam, you would basically be referred to as the father of Adam. And ‘father of’ means ‘Abu Adam’. And so, Abu Adam would mean father of Adam. Now, I was Abu Mujahid. Right? Father of Mujahid. Mujahid means one who does jihad. So you can imagine in the class when he asks, the teacher asks: “Okay, what's your name?” I said: “I am Abu Mujahid.”
NARRATOR: Well that got their attention. Heads snapped around. Who is this? What name did you say? Everything about Mubin screamed ‘extremist’. But it was the reaction of his teacher that would be the start of Mubin’s new life.
MUBIN SHAIKH: The scholar, the teacher there, he says: “Oh.” He starts to question me actually just on the name. And this is where the relationship with that scholar started. He started to, first asked me: “Well, what does jihad mean?” And so, I told him. I said: “Well, jihad means fighting.” And he says: “No, qatal means fighting. What does jihad mean?” And so, this is how he started his engagement with me, so to speak, basically to debunk the interpretations that I had. He said, after class, he said: “Come talk to me.” And then he said to me: “Well, I have lessons that I hold in my home. Why don't you also come and study with me?”
NARRATOR: Mubin agreed. A transformation began.
MUBIN SHAIKH: And this is where I would actually go through a full deradicalization process. He basically, we - together there was a group of us - where he would actually go through the Quran. And, directly go to these verses which extremists had been misusing completely out of their contexts, completely devoid of their historical context, theological contexts, and effectively retaught us the Quran.
NARRATOR: Those lessons worked. Mubin was no longer dedicated to militant jihad. The experience of Syria also changed Mubin. He witnessed police brutality. Sitting on a bus, he had watched while a neighbor of his had been beaten and hauled away by the secret police. He began to appreciate how free he was in Canada. He had seen enough.
MUBIN SHAIKH: I was fed up. I wanted to go back home. Syria was a real police state and I just didn't want to live there anymore. So I returned back to Canada.
NARRATOR: But as soon as he returned in 2004 he was confronted with another pivotal event: the arrest of a childhood friend on terrorism charges.
MUBIN SHAIKH: The first week that I come back, I look on the front page of the newspaper and Momin Khawaja has been arrested in connection with the 2004 London fertilizer bomb plot. Momin Khawaja sat beside me in the Quran school I went to as a kid, and he and I were actually quite good friends. And I look in the article and I see a reference to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. And I, effectively, open the phone book, search up the listing in the directory, and phone them up. And I call them and I say: “Hey, this guy that's been arrested, Momen Khawaja, I know him. It's got to be a mistake.”
NARRATOR: An intelligence officer called Michael Smith asked to meet Mubin to talk more about the statement he wanted to make about his friend. An hour later Mubin is sitting in a Tim Hortons' coffee shop near his home. A blue government car pulls up and out steps Michael in a sharp pinstripe suit, crisp white shirt, and short brown hair. They chat. Mubin talks of how he used to agree with terrorist attacks on the West, but not anymore. Michael says: “Sounds like you want to be the good guy.” Then: “Would you be interested in consulting with the Canadian government?” Hmmm, “consulting”. Whatever could that mean? What would you think of that offer? A terrifying leap into the unknown? Or a chance to reinvent yourself, to make amends for past mistakes, to become the good guy? What would YOU do?
MUBIN SHAIKH: So after this initial meeting with the intelligence officer I went back and did a little bit of research, and I realized very quickly that this was Canada’s spy agency. And my job was now to be a spy.
NARRATOR: Mubin was asked to attend more meetings. This time with two agents, Michael and another, A.J. Brown. No suits this time - white shirts with ties, khaki pants, and loafers. But the agents were not satisfied. They still needed reassurance about Mubin’s views. Had he really changed? They asked him to go to a hotel room.
MUBIN SHAIKH: So I remember just entering the room. The blinds were drawn.
NARRATOR: Out came electrodes, which were attached to Mubin’s fingers. Wires were wrapped around his chest and waist. A blood pressure cuff was strapped around his upper arm.
MUBIN SHAIKH: And I had not recognized this person. I had not met the polygraph operator before. So, he basically explained to me that: “Listen, this is a polygraph, also known as a lie detector. Please don't lie to me. I will know right away.” And so, we begin the polygraph and I'm just being asked general questions about my life. But then, the questions got into what I had been doing in Syria. They asked if the Syrian regime had tasked me to be a spy, and come back into Canada and spy on their behalf. And basically trying to get answers to other questions. What are your beliefs about Canada? What are your beliefs? Basically, trying to find out if I was still of a particular mindset. And so, I guess, he was satisfied and I did pass the polygraph. And after that is when the real work would begin.
NARRATOR: Mubin was in. He’d been recruited as a spy. His work began online.
MUBIN SHAIKH: So my early assignments for the intelligence service basically included online platform exploitation, meaning getting into password-protected chat forums in which extremist-minded individuals were recruiting people. They were discussing tactics, techniques, and procedures, and my job was to effectively get into these forums and see who was doing what, and who they were doing it to. And this became my life for a couple of years.
NARRATOR: The assignments kept coming. Then, in 2005, Mubin was handed a dossier at a safe house location.
MUBIN SHAIKH: And I'm basically told: “Listen, these are the guys. We want you to find out what they're up to.”
NARRATOR: Mubin studied the faces in the dossier. This was new. Before, he’d been given five targets, max. Now he was being shown 16. Already he could feel this was bigger than anything he’d been given before. He was instructed to attend an event at a banquet hall in downtown Toronto. It was part of a surveillance operation codenamed Project Osage. A large international group of young and older men, and their wives, were inciting and planning terrorist attacks in the West and
Europe. And Mubin’s job was to infiltrate the Canadian cell. He was about to meet the group that would later be known as the ‘Toronto 18’.
MUBIN SHAIKH: And so, I had already been invited, actually, to the banquet hall. There was a presentation on Muslim inmates who were in prison. And the grievance of the presentation was basically: "Look at these guys. They haven't been charged with a crime. They're being held on, basically, intelligence on an immigration warrant and they can't even, interact with their family members." And because it was a topic of Muslim prisoners, these guys who I was supposed to investigate showed up at this event. And so, I remember, sitting at the table and one guy just basically came right across. I mean, I was sitting directly across from the main entrance, and one guy comes in and he's got a scarf covering his face, and I don't know how, but he walks straight over to me, and basically almost sits right next to me. And he says: “As-salamu alaykum.” I said: "Wa-alaikum-salaam." And he reveals his mask or he takes the scarf off. And I realized - and I quickly get butterflies in my stomach - because I realized this is target number two from the dossier. And then he says to me: “Oh, my name is Ilyas.” And I remember from the dossier that that is not his name. He's giving me a fake name.
NARRATOR: Mubin’s instincts were right. The target’s real name was Zakaria Amara, one of the ringleaders of the Toronto 18 group. He was the one who would build a detonator and buy three tonnes of ammonium nitrate to use as a bomb. And he wasn’t the only person of interest to put in an appearance that day.
MUBIN SHAIKH: And then he says: “Well, I'm actually just here waiting for my friends to show up.” And so I thought to myself: “Hmmm, I wonder/hope is it the rest of the friends that I saw in the dossier?” And sure enough, a few minutes later, several individuals come in through the front door again, matching the description of what I saw in the dossier. Their photos, I mean, this is definitely them. And they come over to the table that I'm sitting at recognizing “Ilyas”. And that's when I take the initiative and, basically, feel that I can now get up with Zakaria Amara - that's who I was actually meeting - and basically joined all of them together at another table. And this is how I initially broke into the group and started to become friends with the group. Throughout this presentation that was being held at the banquet hall on the Muslim prisoners, there were little, snide remarks that were to indicate a pro-jihadist nature.
NARRATOR: Afterward, outside the venue, things took a more sinister turn.
MUBIN SHAIKH: Basically, they began to “recruit” me. We started to talk about, obviously, about what the US has done in Iraq being a crime. And the next part of the premise was that we had to strike the US because they had gone to war with Islam. Canada, because Canada was allied to the US, was also a legitimate target. Even though Canada didn't actually participate in the Iraq War, the fact that we are military allies to the US, according to this group, certainly made us a target. And so the conversation turned now to this idea that they had, which was that we need to form a group to strike back at the US and at Canada. And we could do that. This is when I was effectively invited to a training camp so that we could bring all these guys who are attending the camp, who had already been invited to the camp by the ring leaders, to bring them to a level of operational capability to conduct catastrophic terrorist attacks against Canadian targets.
NARRATOR: As soon as he could, Mubin reported back to his handlers. He told them the group had revealed plans to blow up office buildings and kill innocent people, and he had been asked to train them to do it. Clearly, this wasn’t a case of disenfranchised people searching for identity through extremist videos and literature. This was an organized group who had weapons and detonators for bombs, and a plan to use them. Mubin’s handlers at the Canadian Security Services had gone as far as they could. He was transferred to the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team at the RCMP, otherwise known as the Mounted Police. This meant a significant shift in Mubin’s position. He was told that working for them would eventually lead to him being exposed as an undercover agent and testifying in court. If he agreed, his anonymity would disappear. What would his father think? The community? He could become a target. Mubin was being asked to make a decision that could affect the rest of his life, and also that of his family. What would you do? After going so far, do you walk away, thinking of yourself? Thinking of others? Or do you double down?
MUBIN SHAIKH: I had this idea that I have a choice: Okay, either I follow through with the case and see it through to its logical conclusion. Or, I walk away from the case because of the risk that I might become identified in court, that my identity would be exposed, that my activities would be exposed. And I just didn't know how the Muslim community would react to
that knowledge. So I was torn. I really had to think about what I was going to do. And, eventually, I did decide that I'm going to follow through with the case. I can't just walk away now. I can't just turn my back. I had to stick with the case. I had to see it through to its end.
NARRATOR: If the group succeeded in carrying out their plans to maim and kill innocent people, he could have been the one to stop that. So he signed up to go deep undercover and join the group as they put their plan into action. They headed out to make a camp in the national forest. It was December. The snow was thick. The group had bought guns and Mubin was put in charge of teaching the terrorists how to use them. There was physical training, obstacle courses, and they shot each other with paintball guns to imitate live fire. They were shown how to simulate ‘martyrdom’ missions. But it wasn’t just physical. It was ideological too. The nightly ‘entertainment’ was watching bombings, explosions, and beheadings. Mubin was horrified at the glee and excitement the group showed as they watched US soldiers die bloody deaths.
MUBIN SHAIKH: So we come to the time of the actual training camp and it starts off, of course. We have an obstacle course built. We have our tents set up. The tent is camouflaged. Every night we were watching videos of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a famous American, deceased, of course, idealogue who was really calling for attacks on the West. We were watching other videos, IED attacks in Iraq, US armed military soldiers being killed by an Iraqi sniper. These were the kinds of activities that we did for almost a good two weeks out in the bush, in the middle of winter, in Canada.
NARRATOR: These weren’t just simulations. The group was training to put their plans into action. And they had specific targets in mind.
MUBIN SHAIKH: The targets that, of course, we had in mind included a number of things. And on one level, it was aspirational. There were a few targets that were mentioned which were just out of the realm of achievable - for example, attacking the nuclear power plant by flying a plane into the building. But the other was quite practical and that included three one-tonne ammonium nitrate truck bombs to go off at a coordinated time during rush hour, with shrapnel inside these bombs, detonated at 9 am so that the maximum amount of damage could be inflicted on pedestrians on vehicles, even down to the details of broken flying glass as a result of the bombs. This was the end goal. This was the end state. And it also turned into an attempt to attack the Parliament building of Canada, to effectively run into the building with guns drawn, and effectively hijack the Parliament of Canada. And, according to one of the ring leaders, to behead Members of Parliament one by one to force the eviction of Canadian Forces from Afghanistan as part of our military deployment.
NARRATOR: Mubin returns to his handlers as soon as possible and files his report. The police decide enough is enough. Now is the time to intervene. Mubin and his family are taken to a safe house. They wait for news. Four hundred police officers, tactical units, helicopters, snipers, all swooped on the suspects, the Toronto 18. Mubin knew his cover must have been blown already. He hadn’t been arrested along with the others. What would happen now? How would his community respond when he was exposed as a spy?
MUBIN SHAIKH: I remember sitting in the hotel room, watching the news and seeing all of this unfold. And then I realized: “Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?” I mean, that was actually my first initial response. And I'm seeing, on TV, a number of individuals have been arrested and, for a split moment, they show three of the guys that I have just spent all this time with day in and day out. And, sure enough, it's the same group. It's this group that I've been undercover with. And now, they're all over the media. And now, I'm asking myself: “Now what? What's going to happen?”
NARRATOR: While he’s in the safe house, Mubin is offered witness protection. The offer? He would take his whole family, including his father, and start a new life. A tempting proposition surely.
MUBIN SHAIKH: This, to me, was unacceptable. I mean, they started with: “Our initial threat and risk assessment indicates a significant threat to your life.” And I knew that people in the community would be upset, but a threat to my life? I found that a little bit hard to believe and so I, respectfully, declined witness protection. And I thought to myself: “You know what? I will, I guess, I'll just take it as it comes.”
NARRATOR: The spying was over. The suspects had been arrested. Mubin had refused witness protection and, at this point, might have been able to keep a low profile. He hadn’t yet been exposed. But Mubin decided to blow his own cover. He complained to his handlers that no credit had been given to the Muslim community for helping. The government was still controlling the narrative. There had already been reactions. Mosques had been attacked by Canadians who were angry that Muslims had plotted against them. Mubin decided he had to give an interview to a Muslim journalist to explain his role in the case. He was about to be on TV. But first, there was someone he had to speak to.
MUBIN SHAIKH: And so, before that interview would air on TV, on that news channel, I had to tell my father and my father watched the show religiously. And I told my father, I said: “Listen, the show you're about to watch, I've given an interview and that terrorism case that you heard about, well, I'm the undercover in that case, and I have been an undercover agent all along.” Actually, his response to me was, he said: “Alhamdulillah, all praises due to God. Tell them to give you a job.” But then, of course, things got very serious because he realized what the heck just happened. My son is on TV, basically telling the whole world that he was undercover in this terrorist cell. And suddenly, he became very nervous, very upset, and very anxious.
NARRATOR: He wasn’t the only one.
MUBIN SHAIKH: And this, basically, described the fallout in the community because eventually the community learned, very quickly, that I was the undercover. Then suddenly, I became the bad guy. Then suddenly, all the attention turned to me. And the accusations, of course, became: “Oh, Mubin is the one that radicalized them, Mubin is the one that set them up and then called the cops on them.” But I would be dogged for a couple of years, at least, of these accusations [that] I had betrayed the community.
NARRATOR: So Mubin’s role in recent events was out in the open, and the backlash from his community was swift. Not everyone believed his intentions were good. Some even believed it was Mubin who had radicalized the group. He was now a pariah. Had it all been worth the price he now had to pay?
MUBIN SHAIKH: I received death threats, of course. And, worst of all, was people that I thought I knew as my friends no longer wanted to have any kind of contact with me. And I could understand that maybe they didn't know if I was really their friend, or if they were a target of an investigation. And this is something that took a little while for me to get over. I was effectively excommunicated and blacklisted from the community.
NARRATOR: This wasn’t the reaction Mubin had expected. He was shunned at the mosque and his handlers were furious. In Mubin’s mind, he’d gone undercover on behalf of all Muslims and wanted to show that not all Muslim communities produced terrorists. But no one seemed to get it. Mubin was in a very dark place.
MUBIN SHAIKH: Right, I became very depressed, because of this, that I was being accused of all these things. And the thing is, while I was undercover and doing these taskings, I remember telling myself that I needed to go out of my way to make sure that I did everything by the book. That I gave these guys all the chances that I could reasonably give them. And even though I had done all those things, I still received those criticisms and complaints. So there was nothing I could do at that point.
NARRATOR: The prosecutions would take the form of five legal hearings that would spread out over four years. It began to sink in that Mubin would spend a long time as a witness. The community had blacklisted him and he had been labeled as the bad guy. He fell into drug addiction, became distant from his wife and his children. And that’s not all.
MUBIN SHAIKH: I effectively lost my faith for a few months. I didn't know what to believe anymore. I started doing drugs. I started drinking, things that I would never have done. I mean, things that were anathema to my life. And, it was an escape for me. I just didn't know who I was supposed to be anymore.
NARRATOR: Mubin didn’t know who he was anymore. His drug abuse eventually took him to see a doctor. He was told that if he carried on he would soon be dead. He needed to make peace with himself and with his God.
MUBIN SHAIKH: So it was very difficult for me, it was crushing to me in one sense that this community that I had been a part of for so long, that my father is such an important part of, this community is now excommunicating me. So what do I do? Is it possible that everybody else is wrong and I am right? And that didn't make sense to me at that time but, in fact, it was true. It was true that, in fact, they were all wrong, because they were not there. I was there. I had seen these things. I had heard these things. We had recorded these interactions with these individuals. They were recorded through other means outside of even just my collection methods.
NARRATOR: It was Mubin’s faith that eventually led to his recovery.
MUBIN SHAIKH: So, unfortunately, I had to go through this cleansing, if you will. But I say Alhamdulillah. The faith was, is, still inside me. And eventually what would end up happening is I would go to Mecca and Medina in early 2007, and basically spent about 10 days there, crying my eyes out to God, asking for forgiveness that if I had done something wrong, forgive me, teach me what is the correct way. And, after spending all this time and just gushing out everything from inside, cleansing myself, detoxing myself in Mecca and Medina [in] the places that I was taught that this is where you get your absolution, this is where you go to get that forgiveness. And so, I like to think that I got it because when I came back, I was in a much, much better place. And I was rewarded for it in the sense that every time a court hearing took place, I succeeded. I did very well. And this I took as a validation that, in fact, God had answered my prayers.
NARRATOR: Mubin was the primary witness in the Toronto 18 hearings and was responsible for the conviction of 11 would-be jihadi terrorists. Three are serving life sentences. As the sentences were handed out, the public was reminded of the huge damage that would have been done had the group’s plans gone ahead. “Catastrophic”, said one judge, saying the plan “would have changed the lives of many, if not all Canadians forever”. But where did that leave Mubin?
MUBIN SHAIKH: I 100 percent I know I did the right thing. I had taken the right step because by the time ISIS had come onto the scene. Western media were looking for people that they could have to speak on this topic, speak intelligently based on some kind of proper experience that they had. And so, I was able to basically step up and defend the Muslim community. This was always my function as I saw it. It wasn't just about cheering on the causes for the community. That's one side of it. The other side was, of course, stepping into and stopping plots that were originating from inside that same community. Am I a hero? I like to think that I just did what I thought was the right thing to do. I mean, this is what my religion commands me to do. There's a famous verse in the Quran: “Stand up for justice,” even if it's against the rich, the poor, your parents, your relatives, even yourselves. And when you are called to give testimony in court, give that testimony. And if you don't give it, then God is aware of what you do. So it's a famous quote, Chapter Four, Verse 135. I had quoted the verse many times, but now I had actually lived the verse and it had become a part of my life.
NARRATOR: I’m Hayley Atwell. Join us next week for another conversation with True Spies. Join us next week for another brush with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Mubin Shaikh is a former counter terrorism operative and professor of public safety in Toronto, Canada. He is also a counter extremism specialist for the US-based NGO Parents for Peace.