From Jihadi to @CaliphateCop

By Courtney Schuster
Courtney Schuster
Courtney Schuster
January 24, 2015 Updated: January 25, 2015

Mubin Shaikh was the average Western teen. He grew up in Toronto, raised as Indian-Canadian by parents from the United Kingdom. He attended attended public school, joined the Royal Canadian Army Cadets (Canada’s oldest youth program), and dated cheerleaders. After getting caught throwing a party with alcohol, marijuana, and girls, Shaikh felt pressure from his local Muslim community to “get religious,” he said at an event at New America, where he spoke along with Dr. Anne Speckhard. He felt guilty and wanted to show that he could be a better Muslim. So at 19, in the midst of an adolescent identity crisis, he took a religious trip to Pakistan to re-connect with his cultural history. While he was there, a he stumbled upon the Taliban and decided that he didn’t want to be an average Western teenager any more. He re-invented himself as a jihadi.

So how did Shaikh get from point A in Toronto to point B in Pakistan, and later Syria?

So how did Shaikh get from point A in Toronto to point B in Pakistan, and later Syria? The book he and Dr. Speckhard have written together,Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18 – Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West, is in part the story of that journey, but is also the story of how radicalization happens. Shaikh’s basic theory of radicalization fits into the well-known debate over whether biology or environment determines our fate.  Reflecting upon his own experience, Shaikh says that both an individual’s nature and the context in which he or she is nurtured are what lead to extremism, including his own.  He has five factors in his self-made jihadi test: personality, cognitive framing, activism and expression, the glorification of violence, and wildcard factors.

One’s personality forms in childhood, which was in many ways a happy time for Shaikh. Growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Shaikh hung out with kids in rock bands, dated girls, and hosted social gatherings with friends.  His class had students from both genders, from all ethnic backgrounds and different religions.  He wasn’t discriminated against, bullied, or isolated from other students.  He fit in; he was the stereotypical teenager in a free society.

But at the same time that he was being socialized as a normal Canadian teen, his life experience was also different from his classmates. Every day after school in his formative years, Shaikh went to madrassa. His Indo-Pakistani maulana – a South Asian title for a religious teacher – would beat the boys, drilling into them idea that Islam is taught through violence.  There were no intercultural experiences, no gender mingling at the madrassa — only very rigid, fundamentalist experiences. For his own part, Shaikh believes that almost living a double life growing up and his exposure to violence and fundamentalist Islamic ideas by his madrassa made him susceptible to radicalization.  It was only a matter of time until the identity conflict between who he was at school and who he was at the madrassa started to pull him apart.

Before his trip to Pakistan, Shaikh describes himself as politically unaware. He was a confused kid trying to reconcile conflicting aspects of who he was and who he wanted to become, and he listened as the Taliban he met told stories of the Prophet’s great warriors. Inspired, he felt awakened and came to espouse their version of Islam.  Enamored by their passion and determination, Shaikh says he was, at that moment, “bit by the jihadi bug.”

For 8 years, Shaikh moved in jihadi networks in Canada and studied Islam in Syria.  It was after his experience in Syria, where he faced discrimination and contempt for being Indian in an Arab country, that Shaikh became “disillusioned” with life as a jihadi.  He began to question his radical lifestyle. In his late 20s, Shaikh joined a religious studies class at a university in Damascus. The teacher, known as Shaykh al Bahar (“scholar with the knowledge of an ocean”) was determined to dispel misconceptions about Islam. More than anything else, this teacher encouraged Mubin to ask questions, to be curious and skeptical. The more he studied with the Shaykh, the more his eyes opened to the possibility to be a human being and a good Muslim, he had to honor the sanctity of life above the embrace of violence.

Disillusioned with jihad and extremist Islam, he returned to Canada, where he eventually became an operative for the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service and Canadian Royal Mounted Police in 2004 and 2005.

Disillusioned with jihad and extremist Islam, he returned to Canada, where he eventually became an operative for the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service and Canadian Royal Mounted Police in 2004 and 2005. As an undercover operative Shaikh helped prevent devastating attacks planned for Toronto. The infamous Toronto 18 case, where 18 Canadian Muslims faced terrorism-related charges for plotting to bomb multiple buildings in Toronto, stemmed from this incident. Shaikh highlighted what some of the participants in that plot had in common. They were raised near Toronto by secular-to-moderate parents, suffered identity crises during high school, and had access to multiple types of cultural and religious materials that glorified violence, ranging from gangsta rap to jihadist messages and images on the Internet.

Beyond linking the glorification of violence to a susceptibility to jihadist rhetoric and imagery, can other aspects of Shaikh’s account be used as a future model for the de-radicalization process? The unpredictable nature of Shaikh’s meeting with Taliban jihadis also underscores the difficulty in using his wildcard factor as a model for prevention. No one can predict whose family will be killed by a drone strike, and who will want to exact revenge as a result. Likewise, altering someone’s personality would seem to require a level of work beyond the resources of most governments and groups. That leaves cognitive framing–the idea that personal experiences influence our conceptual interpretation of the world– as an area where de-radicalization programs can focus its attention. How can dangerous cognitive perspectives, gleaned from radical madrassas or social media, be combatted?  Would early education on tolerance and anti-extremists ideologies, both in religious and public school settings, be the answer?

Shaikh has set out to alter the cognitive framework of jihadis via Twitter, challenging extremists on their statements, asking for textual proof, and responding with his own quotes from the Hadith.  Many extremists on Twitter try to fight back and defend their views, lambast Shaikh as a spy, or just block him altogether. It remains to be seen, then, whether Shaikh’s Twitter crusade has been effective, but there is no doubt that his story—from being radicalized by the Taliban to de-radicalized by prejudice and an imam in the right place at the right time to disrupting a massive terror plot—can serve as both cautionary tale and proof that countering violent extremism is indeed possible.

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This article was republished from The Weekly Wonk, New America‘s digital magazine. Read the original on the New America website.