Mubin Shaikh is a deradicalized former Muslim supremacist who worked as an undercover counterterrorism operative. He teaches at Seneca’s Honours Bachelor of Crime & Intelligence Analysis degree program. (Photo: submitted)
The making of a spy-turned-Seneca professor
“I’m a problem-solving person and I have the responsibility to educate and inform the next generation because that’s how change is going to come.”
Oct. 8, 2020
Don’t expect Mubin Shaikh to give you his views before he gives you the facts.
“That’s dishonest,” said the Seneca professor who teaches crime prevention and community policing in the Honours Bachelor of Crime & Intelligence Analysis degree program. “I prefer to take a research-based approach.”
While there are many facts about Mr. Shaikh on the internet, the first thing he tells his students by way of a biography posted on Blackboard is this: he’s a deradicalized former Muslim supremacist who worked as an undercover counterterrorism operative for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in the 2006 anti-terrorism sweep and what became known as the “Toronto 18” court case that followed as a result.
“I don’t like spending too much time on myself so the students must be thinking ‘Holy crap!’ when they read that,” he said. “What I do in class is I point out the different styles of policing — I can go back to policing in Rome if you want — and I tell them to learn how to be good allies. You’re not going to learn that from a textbook.”
In fact, there’s nothing textbook about Mr. Shaikh. Due to the aforementioned RCMP investigation, in which he was the primary fact witness in five legal hearings over four years, Mr. Shaikh went from being undercover to being under the spotlight.
“I had to follow through with the investigation,” he recalled, “and boom, I became publicly known for my work.”
As one of the very few people in the world to have infiltrated a homegrown terrorist cell, Mr. Shaikh emerged as an outspoken counterterrorism expert in 2010. He has been a consultant to national security and counterterrorism agencies in the U.S. and the U.K. and has appeared on CBC, CNN, ABC, NBC and other media outlets to speak on topics related to Islamist extremism and terrorism in the Western context.
“I was going to get out there and saturate as much as I can about this stuff,” he said. “I was also doing documentaries to counter any anti-Muslim sentiment.”
All of this began in 1995, when the 19-year-old Mr. Shaikh hosted a house party while his parents were away.
“What happened was my uncle burst through the door like a SWAT team and I was caught having all these white people over, drinking and smoking weed,” he said. “I had an identity crisis — I went to public school during the day and Quran school at night. So, after that, I decided I had to become a super hard-core Muslim. I thought that’s how I had to be, you know, this overt, in-your-face Muslim.”
Mr. Shaikh left Toronto, where he was born and raised, and travelled to India and Pakistan. That year he had a chance encounter with the Taliban in Quetta and eventually became a supporter of the Jihadi culture throughout his 20s.
Back then, Mr. Shaikh was self-taught and sported a full beard and dressed in traditional Afghan clothing. While he “calmed down a lot” after getting married in 1998 and having his first child a year later, he worked in the networks to recruit others until 9/11, “which really made me reconsider my commitment to my cause,” he said.
“The acts of 9/11 turned me away from extremism because of how egregious the attack was. I reconsidered how I even came to accept them in the first place. I thought it must be because I didn’t know the religion as well as I thought.”
It was 2001 and Mr. Shaikh decided to travel abroad to Damascus, Syria, with his wife and their two children. There he spent two years of directed reading in Arabic and Islamic studies. He also taught English and pursued religious studies at the University of Waterloo through distance learning.
When he returned to Canada in 2004, he saw in the papers the first Canadian to be arrested under Canada’s newly minted anti-terrorism law. His name is Momin Khawaja and he was Mr. Shaikh’s childhood friend.
“I thought it had to be a mistake and I went to the directory, found the number for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and said so to them,” he said. “They of course had other plans for me, given my background.”
CSIS recruited him as a “walk-in,” a spy that basically comes off the street, to enter back into that world of extremism and play for Team Canada this time.
“I looked very Muslim when I was undercover,” recalled Mr. Shaikh, now father of five. “When I dressed like that, I could hear the comments and see the looks when I walked down the street. But I was undercover and I had to eat that for a while.”
After the operation came to an end, Mr. Shaikh decided to do a master’s degree on the subject during the four years he spent in court testifying against the “Toronto 18.” Once again, through distance learning, he completed a Master of Policing, Intelligence, and Counter Terrorism from Macquarie University in Australia.
“I told myself I needed to study about this,” he said. “This is what the purpose of life is and I internalize the phrase ‘learning for life.’ It was Aristotle who said, ‘Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.’ I try to live by this.”
Mr. Shaikh went on to receive a scholarship as a PhD candidate in psychological sciences studying radicalization, deradicalization and violent extremism at the University of Liverpool. However, he eventually left the program “because the things I was doing at the time were more relevant and timely,” he said.
When he was asked to teach in the Crime & Intelligence Analysis degree program this past summer, Mr. Shaikh said it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
“The questioning of the world of policing, all these things I’m teaching, I’ve gone through, I’ve experienced,” he said. “I’m a problem-solving person and I have the responsibility to educate and inform the next generation because that’s how change is going to come.”
Mubin Shaikh is the subject of Undercover Jihadi, a documentary following his path from extremist militant to undercover operative. (Photo: Matter of Fact Media and TV Ontario)
Asked if he misses working as an operative, after a moment of hesitation he says he does.
“It’s at the cutting edge. That’s how I saw it. These were the most timely issues and advanced investigations happening in the country. I liked that I was a part of it, but I have to also appreciate all of the experiences I’ve had. I did it for a while. I got a taste of it. It’s like making pasta sauce. You can do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Too much of one thing will lean you one way.”