Born in Toronto and raised Muslim, Mubin Shaikh became a radical Islamist after a trip to Pakistan in the 1990s. Back in Canada, Shaikh recruited other young Muslims for the cause of jihad. But 9/11 led him to question his path. After a stint in Syria studying the Quran, he returned home changed once again, this time determined to fight the militarism he had espoused. Working with CSIS, Shaikh was a government agent in the "Toronto 18" case, where a group of mostly young Muslims were convicted of plotting to attack Canadian institutions. Today, Shaikh campaigns against Islamophobia while also trying to stop radicalization in his own community, using social media to engage directly with Islamic State sympathizers. And while he still works with Western governments, he's not afraid to criticize Western policies that he says fuel the radicalization he fights.
Just months ago, it was widely believed that the Islamic State's threat was confined to the Middle East, where it seeks to establish a so-called "caliphate." But the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino show IS has joined if not surpassed Al Qaeda in recruiting or inspiring Muslims in the West to commit murderous acts against civilians. VICE sat down with Mubin Shaikh to discuss how vulnerable young Muslims are radicalized to commit violence; Shaikh's own path from jihadist to government agent; and how groups like IS distort the religion they claim to represent.
VICE: What makes vulnerable young Muslims prone to being recruited by groups like the Islamic State?
Mubin Shaikh: You're dealing with a social movement. It's beyond a terrorist group. And social movements have grievance narratives. The reason why those grievance narratives resonate is because they are based in fact. It might not be complete fact and it might be their way of interpreting world events, but the reality is that when they say that their grievance is about Western foreign policy, particularly the bombing of Muslim countries—they're not wrong when they say that.
When I was around in 1995, we would watch videotapes [of jihadist propaganda], and then [DVDs] came out and we watched DVDs. But what modern day social networking has done is it's accelerated that exponentially. You're sitting there at a television screen or computer screen, you're watching these images over and over and over—it's traumatizing you. Your eyes will be overwhelmed with visual images of death, destruction, killing, torture, oppression [of Muslims].
The psychological term is "vicarious deprivation." So now, I'm not deprived myself individually, but I'm watching these videos about my people being oppressed and suddenly their deprivation and their oppression becomes my deprivation and my oppression, and enter that extremist message, "OK, you see that now? You feel that now? What are you going to do about it?"
And what are the social conditions that young Muslims live in that make them susceptible to that?
Isolation and marginalization. The context is different in North America versus Europe. In Europe it's far worse, especially in France. France was a colonizer of North Africa, of Algeria in particular. Usually, colonizers tend not to be able to integrate the colonized populations very well in their own host societies. And so [there are] very high levels of unemployment, lack of opportunity—that's really what it comes down to. It's not that poverty causes terrorism, but what is poverty other than a lack of opportunity? So for those who have a lack of opportunity, the only options they have really is the criminal underworld, things like that. It's very easy for most of the youth who are in those conditions to be very vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists. And it's no accident that France has the highest number of foreign fighters in Syria.
You're involved right now in efforts to stop Muslims from being radicalized, how do you go about that? What do you tell them and what do they tell you?What I've been doing is micro-engaging with these individuals on a one-to-one basis, and my approach is what I call "pro-Islam, anti-terrorism." We say very clearly, the Islamic sources never ever permit the violence on civilians in public spaces. There's just no exception to that rule. It's unequivocally prohibited.
But you have the Islamic State themselves and also [critics of Islam] like the New Atheists, quoting passages like Chapter 9, Verse 5 saying, "Kill all the non-believers."
Yeah, I do find it ironic that ISIS and New Atheist types, or anti-Muslim types, quote the same verses in the exact same way. They say, "Islam is about terrorism, and here are the verses to prove it." So I remind them that I also used to believe this stuff. I also used to cherry pick and misquote the verses the same way both of them do it. So in Chapter 9, Verse 5, I used to say the same thing. I said, "Look, the verse says, 'Kill the kuffar, wherever they are.'" Now, in fact, that's not what it says. I mean, it's a portion of a longer verse. And that portion actually says, "Al-Mushrikin," it talks about polytheists. So when the scholar in Syria was trying to de-radicalize me, he said to me, "Tell me, do you normally begin reading chapters from verse 5? Maybe you should start with verse 1. I don't know, it's just a thought."
So Verse 1 talks about "The polytheists… This is in regards to the polytheists with whom you made a treaty and have violated the treaty." If you look at Verse 4, which directly precedes Verse 5, it says, "Not included in these instructions are those polytheists who kept the covenant, the treaty, and did not assault you and participate in violence against you. Then keep the term of your contract with them." So it makes it very clear. The content is very specific, it's those people who are actually fighting you unlawfully, because you're a Muslim. Because, in that context, the polytheists were fighting the Muslims just because they were Muslim, because they believed in one God and they made the call to one God. So looking at that context and, as opposed to what they're doing today, you can see that [the Islamic State] has completely [distorted it]. Now they've applied this verse to include even Jews and Christians.
So when speaking with potential Islamic State sympathizers I show them the Islamic sources, I take screenshots of verses, I take screenshots of a scholar's commentary on a particular verse, what the Prophet [Mohamed] has said about these deviant groups like ISIS who come in the garb of Islam; they pray, they fast, they strive hard and worship, but they falsify the meanings of the Qur'an and most of all they kill Muslims, even more so than they kill non-Muslims.
Sometimes me being the messenger, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't work. Being a known intelligence operative they think, Oh, this guy's still working for the Intelligence Service. I'm coming from this perspective of, "I've dealt with guys like you and I don't want you to get caught up in the prosecutorial system and criminal justice system." And it's funny because I see myself in them, I see mirror images sometimes. They speak the same way—they're very angry, and very frustrated. They are convinced that there is a war in Islam and all they do is inundate themselves with all the negative stuff that's out there. So, I understand that I'm not going to change a kid's mind overnight. But if I can plant seeds of… I don't like to say "seeds of doubt," I say "seeds of truth" so that eventually somewhere down the road it could be they're triggered by something in their life that it makes them rethink their approach, just like it happened to me.
Every time there's a terror attack, whether it's 9/11 or the Paris killings, life becomes harder for Muslims in the West. Do you think this is part of the Islamic State's deliberate strategy?
It is definitely part of their deliberate strategy. They wrote it in a manifesto called the Black Flags from ROME, where they said, we'll eliminate "the grey zone of coexistence" and create life so difficult for Muslims, have retaliation by militia groups on the Muslims to further isolate, marginalize, anger them so that they do turn to violence. This is their stated objective. The sad reality is, you have people on the right who might as well directly take the marching orders from ISIS because they're doing the work for them.
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There was a study by two Lebanese social workers who were interviewing Islamic State prisoners inside a Lebanese jail. And one of their findings was that: "Almost all the people we interviewed have some type of an 'absent father syndrome.' They were all either extensively humiliated and abused or abandoned by their fathers at a young age."
This is one of the reasons why I refer to my life history as protective factors. The reason why I didn't cross over into violence is because I did have both parents. There was tension of course when I was a teenager, but it was largely a positive relationship and I had some religious training, I had good schooling, I wasn't humiliated or bullied or picked on. So it's no surprise to me that you see this with these guys. These are largely overwhelmingly [people with] a dysfunctional family setting. The absent father syndrome we see is common in youth crime across the board: white, black, Asian, you name it. It transcends races and cultures and religions. Where the father is not there you're going to find truancy, you're going to find delinquency.
The other thing that you'll see that they don't have is a good religious upbringing. There are multiple interviews of ISIS defectors, of prisoners, of individuals who gave interviews after they had been captives who said that these people… I never saw a Qur'an, I didn't see them praying, and they're largely religiously illiterate. And it comes as no surprise because they have a deep-seated anger before the ideology kicks in. So you're already angry, you're already mad at the world and you're going to find something that gives you validation and gives you justification for your anger.
So lo and behold, look at these ISIS foreign fighter recruits who are going from Europe: the majority of them have criminal records, majority of them have some kind of prison experience, not necessarily imprisoned but are in the peer groups of those who have been imprisoned. Of course, you can also look at institutional discrimination that puts Muslims in prison more so than other people, and in France it's huge. So this is the larger environmental context in which these people are emerging. It's not a simple case of they open the Qur'an, they read a verse, and then they become jihadis.
Montreal has just opened up a de-radicalization center. Can this help?
It can help, but I note that in the Senate hearing that looked at radicalization, in Quebec especially, lo and behold, 75 percent of extremism cases were not religiously motivated—they were white supremacist extremists. So I think the de-radicalization center has a wide enough approach that will look at that, and is able to deal also with far right extremism, but also religiously motivated extremism. We don't want to pick on only one group. If we are really, truly interested in countering violent extremism, then we have to include all the groups that fall into that category.
Quebec does seem to have a unique problem though in that there is a certain percentage of young Muslims who are radicalized, and there's also a large amount of Islamophobia. What should be done there?
The Quebec context is very closely connected to the French one. And the Quebec government has control over its own immigration policy. They bring in French-speaking Muslims who are largely coming from North Africa, the Arab states that the French colonized. So there is that grievance narrative that's still there and this is what feeds and drives some of those radicalized individuals, and there's most definitely a group of people who are like that in Quebec. It doesn't help when you have the symbiotic union with anti-Muslim hatemongers, because each of them feed into one another.
You've worked as an operative for Canadian Intelligence, helping break up a plot. What did you do for them?
I was an operative with Canadian Security Intelligence Service on a number of investigations, some of them actually online, looking at chat rooms to see who are the recruiters, who are being recruited, identifying threats in that context, of course, on the ground in a human intelligence context, infiltrating groups, reporting back on what people were up to. So, in many cases, it was absolving people of false accusations of involvement with extremism.
Working as an operative, did that hurt your credibility with your community?
The Canadian public in general and Muslim community in general were largely in denial over radicalization of Muslim youth. We couldn't imagine it would happen here because Canada's such a great place, we're so tolerant, so welcoming. Bad things don't happen to good people, right? But they do and even in the most tolerant societies you're going to get people who are disenfranchised and who latch on to an ideology that gives them a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging and identity, and you really can't compete with that so you have to deal with it. I understand completely the siege mentality that the Muslim community feels. I think that it explains why they were in denial over what happened in the Toronto  case. There's a lot of misinformation that was put out. I was accused of entrapment, and it's physically impossible that that could've happened because they had already had the plot in mind, they had already scoped out a location for their training camp, they had already invited all the people who were going to the camp. That's all before I was sent in to infiltrate the group.
I learned in a court disclosure two years after that CSIS knew about all this stuff 12 days before I was sent in. So it's impossible that there was any entrapment along those lines. But I will say, seven people got off of charges because of my testimony. The government wanted to depict [them as] these are hardcore Al-Qaeda trained guys. And they were not. They were bumbling amateurs, their reach exceeded their grasp. Yes, they had all these lofty ideas of storming the Parliament building and kidnapping members of Parliament and cutting their heads off, but there was no way for them to realize that plot.
The Muslim community now understands. They're realizing that, "Listen, we're going to lose our kids. And we're going to always have to answer every time there is an attack, we're always going to have to say 'Islam doesn't have anything to do with terrorism.'" But now what's needed is for the Muslim community to close ranks in that sense, to understand that we are at the forefront of this, we are its number one victims—from both sides—and we are the ones that can bring a better solution than anyone else.
This interview has been edited for context and length.
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