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A spy for God and country

Since he infiltrated a suspected terrorist cell, a prominent Toronto Muslim has met with hostility and praise.

February 25, 2007|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — 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.

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