A spy for God and country

Times Staff Writer

Mubin Shaikh, the informer, balances his 3-month-old son in the palm of his hand and hoists him aloft like the torch of the Statue of Liberty. The baby coos and smiles, unaware of the danger of falling, then lurches into space. Shaikh catches him gently and laughs.

Shaikh’s own balancing act has been more difficult.

He is a 31-year-old Canadian-born Muslim who disavowed the mosque to fit in with his neighborhood friends, then rejected that life to practice traditional Islam. Later, he used his stature in the Muslim community to infiltrate a suspected terrorist cell, and then helped expose it -- an act that alienated him from many in his own circles.

Shaikh’s struggle with identity and loyalty is part of a larger conundrum confronting Western nations with edgy and diverse Islamic populations. He thought his ability to straddle worlds was the answer to quelling the homegrown terrorism that has stunned London, Madrid and now Toronto. But it has only raised more questions.


The suspected cell’s plan, prosecutors said in June, was to explode three truck bombs in front of Toronto police and intelligence headquarters and Parliament Hill, then take politicians hostage and behead them one by one. The group of 18 had acquired 3 tons of what it thought was explosive material when police moved in, authorities say.

Cushioned by faith

To some, Shaikh is a hero, acting to protect not only Canada but Islam. Others charge that he enabled the plotters instead of acting to stop them, betrayed his brethren and reinforced the image of Muslims as terrorists in this country where more than half a million practice Islam.

Now he faces death threats, which he doesn’t take seriously, and glares and cold shoulders in the mosque, which he does. As preliminary hearings for the suspects begin, the anguished questions revive: Did he do all he could? Was it necessary? Will he survive it?


Shaikh dismisses the threats and condemnations as he tickles his son’s head with his long black beard. He believes that if he falls, he will be cushioned by his faith.

Shaikh was born in Toronto in 1975, two years after his parents arrived from India via England. His family practiced Islam, but he felt indistinguishable from his Italian and Portuguese neighbors.

In high school, he said, he was one of the “cool guys,” sporting five tattoos, smoking pot behind a back wall and dating the cheerleaders.

“I am Canadian and I am Indian, born and raised here, with the expectations of conformity and the pain of acculturation,” Shaikh said. “I had to deal with the clash of cultures. I liked girls, I liked music, I wanted nothing to do with the mosque.”


Shaikh was in the Royal Canadian Army Cadets for six years and trained with a reserve unit. He became skilled with firearms and learned military maneuvers that he said he eventually taught to the aspiring terrorist cell. He was attracted by the discipline, he said.

After high school, still searching for discipline or a higher law, he came back to Islam. And like many young people, he said, he “overcompensated” and became ultra-religious, traveling to India and Pakistan with a conservative Islamic missionary group. He returned to Toronto in a knee-length robe, a skullcap and a long beard that he still wears today.

“It blew everybody away,” he said of his transformation. He found it difficult at first to reconcile Canadian secular values with his newfound Islamic beliefs. “From the age of 19, I was made to feel like a stranger in my own country. I was subject to comments and looks.”

The alienation increased after the Sept. 11 attacks, when people began to tell him to act like a Canadian or go home.


“This is my home,” he said. “I was angry, and cynical. I wanted to go to Afghanistan or Chechnya. I could have been a jihadi.”

Instead, he went to Syria in 2002 to study for two years, and came back more appreciative of Canada’s laws and freedoms, armed with Koranic verses that argued against terrorism.

Shaikh became a well-known figure in Toronto’s Muslim community as an official at the conservative Masjid el Noor mosque and a prominent proponent of using Sharia, or Islamic law, to settle family disputes among Muslims in Ontario province.

The government and liberal Muslims argued that the Islamic religious code clashed with Canadian laws, and the movement failed.


Down the informant’s path

When Shaikh heard in 2004 that a childhood friend, Mohammed Momin Khawaja, had been arrested under Canada’s new anti-terrorism laws, he called the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and said, “I’ve known this guy for a long time and there’s got to be a mistake.” He asked how he could help straighten things out.

CSIS agents quizzed him on his background and his beliefs. After more meetings and a polygraph test, they asked him to infiltrate a group they had been monitoring. Shaikh said he had had brushes with the law but no convictions, and he insisted no deals were made with the CSIS that led him to take on the assignment.

The agency agreed to pay him in installments for his efforts, and he said that as of January he had received more than $250,000. Another informant who ended up going into a witness protection program was paid about $12 million as compensation for giving up his business and home and relocating his family.


Neither the CSIS nor the police would comment for this article, citing confidentiality and preparations for the trial of the plot suspects.

Troubled by doubts, Shaikh consulted his spiritual advisor, who told him to be sure he was doing it for God, not for himself, and cautioned that he must not incite the others or betray his faith.

Shaikh’s first test came in October 2005. He went to a fundraiser for imprisoned Muslims, assigned to connect with the alleged terrorist cell ringleader, Fahim Ahmad.

In the course of the evening, Shaikh said, he gave the right answers to Ahmad’s questions, a between-the-lines test of whether Shaikh was prepared to wage “holy war.” When the other alleged leader, Zacaria Amara, embraced him later that night, it apparently was in part to let Shaikh feel the gun under his clothes.


In turn, Shaikh said, he showed them his hard-to-get firearms license he had obtained as a cadet rifle instructor and told them of his military training. They needed someone to help them get arms and lead a training camp. Soon, he was in.

Shaikh said he and Ahmad seemed to recognize something in each other. Shaikh described Ahmad as a Muslim who struggled with the culture clash, whose religious values pushed him to the margins of society, where he grew angry and alienated and increasingly radical.

Laughing when he realized that he could be giving his own biography, Shaikh asked, “How is it that a guy like that goes one way and I go another?

“I don’t know if it is fate or what, but I ended up with the right religious connection,” he said. “If I had met a facilitator, chances are I would be somewhere in Afghanistan or Chechnya right now.”


‘Impressionable’ recruits

The group included leaders and their young recruits -- high school students from wealthy suburban families who lived in large Tudor houses. One drove a BMW, another a Lexus. A few of the younger ones left the circle at his quiet prompting, Shaikh said, and at the other minors’ pretrial hearing, he pleaded for charges against some of the “impressionable kids” to be dropped. On Friday, charges against the youngest suspect were suspended.

He said he saw members of the group nearly every day for 10 months, watched beheading videos to desensitize himself, and wrote careful reports for the CSIS. The agency wired his van, tapped all their phones and monitored the group’s movements.

In the winter, he said, the group spent 10 days in the woods a few hours north of Toronto in a makeshift terrorist training camp, led by Shaikh. Under the watchful eyes of concealed CSIS agents, the young holy warriors learned how to fire guns and hit a VIP convoy, and discussed the techniques of beheading.


The plot was progressing, Shaikh said: Amara showed him a homemade detonator sparked by a cellphone and told him he was testing bombs. Shaikh said he didn’t know that the group had ordered 3 tons of ammonium nitrate, the material used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing.

The supplier turned out to be another mole, unknown to Shaikh, and the bags did not contain ammonium nitrate. After the material was delivered, more than 400 police officers conducted raids in early June, bursting through the doors of suburban homes with SWAT teams to arrest 12 men and five minors. The 18th suspect was arrested two months later.

When whispers ran like a current through the Muslim community that Shaikh was the informer, he decided that the best protection was to explain himself.

“I didn’t do it for the money. I didn’t do it to be a hero. I did it for Islam, because we don’t support terror, and if those guys had succeeded, it would have made all Muslims look bad,” he said, anger sparking in his dark brown eyes. “And I did it for Canada. I was born here, and I want this to be a place where people can live together without suspicion.”


To many, he was a hero. After he revealed his identity in July, an editorial in the Globe and Mail headlined “In Praise of Mr. Shaikh” said: “He is an observant Muslim who acted against an alleged terrorist ring. For that, Canadians of all stripes should be grateful.”

But within Toronto’s multifaceted Muslim community, gratitude was in short supply.

“Individuals cannot credibly spy on their own community while remaining a member of it,” said Safiyyah Ally, the host of the TV program “Let the Quran Speak.” “Our community is fragile enough as is, and our leaders are our moral anchors.”

Ally said the community should report suspicious activity but leave the spying to the authorities.


Shaikh heard that and laughed. “How many Muslims do you think there are in CSIS? How many can penetrate those circles? Why do you think they came to me?”

After his exposure, though, Shaikh has found it more difficult than he expected to break through in even his old circles.

“There has been a lot of hostility.” he said. “But that is trivial compared to not doing it, because it could have led to something so devastating, so tragic.”

“Instead of being peeved at the fact that I was involved, they should be peeved at the guys who were doing it,” he said. “They were angry that I brought attention to it. But think of the attention if those guys had blown up a truck bomb. It would come back to us 100%.”