The 2006 arrests of the Toronto 18 was a key moment in the post-9/11 war on terror. It helped internationalise the war effort and added Canada to the list of supposed terrorist targets. This week I examine the life and work of the main Canadian intelligence informant inside the Toronto 18 – Mubin Shaikh. I analyse whether the plotters posed a genuine threat, or whether they were set up by Canadian authorities for political reasons.
I mentioned the Toronto 18 a couple of episodes back, and how CNN attributed the plot to Anwar al Awlaki. While it is true that some of the gang had watched Awlaki’s videos, they also watched videos of beheadings, and well as videos of battles and ambushes from the Iraq war. I admit, I watched a lot of these sorts of videos back then, mostly on liveleak, and I never became a jihadi extremist who wanted to behead Canadian members of parliament.
What’s missing from the CNN ‘blame it on Awlaki’ version of events is that Canadian intelligence had two spies inside the Toronto gang, who played key roles in their activities which were later used to make them look like a terror cell. One of these informants rented the storage locker where the plotters kept the fertiliser they were going to use to make a bomb. Except it wasn’t fertiliser, it was an inert compound provided by Canadian intelligence. That was bought by the informant. To put in a locker less than 500 yards from the nearest RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) installation.
The other informant was Mubin Shaikh. Mubin was born in 1975 in Toronto, the son of Indian Muslim parents. His book Undercover Jihadi describes two key elements of his upbringing that would play a major role later – his sense of a dual identity, both Muslim and Westerner, and the fact he was sexually abused by an uncle when he was a child. The former somewhat explains his fluid, almost ever-changing approach to Islamic Radicalism, the latter explains his rage and other emotional problems.
As in many families, when he told his mother about the abuse she didn’t say a word to the authorities, or to the child-molesting uncle. The shame of it meant she kept it quiet, which caused Mubin considerable pain and confusion. The Muslim community in which he grew up was pretty conservative, so he spent a lot of time at the madrasa, and suffered corporal punishment when he stepped out of line.
Aged 14 he joined the Royal Canadian Army Cadets, which would become important later.
Following an identity crisis he dropped out of the cadets and started taking drugs – weed, cocaine, mushrooms – as well as partying and sleeping with girls from his school. His parents were not happy, and put a lot of pressure on him to live up to the community’s expectations, contributing to him embracing the party lifestyle.
But by the age of 19 he was starting to grow out of that, and decided to take his religion more seriously. He signed up for the Tabligi Jamaat – a sort of missionary movement for Muslims that originated in India. Essentially their members go around trying to encourage Muslims to re-connect with their faith and practice Islam in their daily lives. This saw Mubin travel to India and Pakistan, where he stayed for months, reinvigorating his religious roots.
While he was in Pakistan he had a chance meeting with some militants, likely Taliban, and was very impressed by their hardline approach to Islam as well as the military uniforms and weaponry. They let him fire off a few rounds with their weapons, and encouraged him to join their Islamic uprising. For a short period, Mubin was sucked into the romance and adventure of Islamic militancy.
He returned to Canada, where his parents showered him with pride and praise for taking his religion so seriously. He now became the young man that other parents asked their sons ‘why can’t you be more like him?’. He met a Catholic Polish woman, they fell in love and after she converted to Islam, they married. Their first child was named ‘Mujahid’.
When 9/11 happened Mubin saw it on the news, and his initial reaction was one of excitement, he saw the attacks as America finally getting what it deserved. But he began to doubt this quite quickly, wondering how it can be right in Islam to use terrorist tactics. He wanted to continue studying Islam to try to find the answers, which led him to Syria. He, Joanne and little Mujahid spent around two years in Syria in the early 2000s, which saw his approach to Islam shift once more.
He met a scholar, Shaykh al Bahar, who deradicalised Mubin over a fairly long period of time. The scholar showed him how the Salafis barely understood the Koran and had little knowledge of it, often twisting a sentence from here or a saying from there to try to justify their worldview. By the time Mubin returned to Canada in March 2004 he was no longer enticed by jihadism, and was ready to be a peaceful leader in his community.
A few weeks after Mubin returned to Canada, the British ‘fertiliser bomb plot’ was broken up. For those of you who have seen my 7/7 documentaries or read my book, this is the plot supposedly busted by Operation Crevice, a joint MI5-Special Branch op. While this was predominantly based in Britain, one Canadian was arrested in April 2004 as the police and intelligence agencies moved in on the plotters. He was Momin Khawaja – a childhood friend of Mubin who had once told a teacher at the madrasa who was beating him that one day he’d return with a bigger stick.
Khawaja’s supposed role in the plot was to create a mobile phone jammer to be used as a remote detonator, but Mubin couldn’t believe that his friend was guilty. In a curious parallel with the Morten Storm story, Mubin phoned up CSIS – the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service – to vouch for Khawaja and give him a character reference. He agreed to meet with a CSIS agent calling himself ‘Michael Smith’ (how original) who effectively recruited Mubin on the spot.
For about a year Mubin worked as a consultant to Canadian intelligence, infiltrating mosques and reporting back on who he thought might pose a threat and who was just an everyday Muslim. It seems he was pretty good at it – the Canadians had several other informants who reported people to them who turned out to be completely innocent, and Mubin felt proud of exonerating most of the people he was spying on.
At one point they even discussed sending Mubin to Yemen, to infiltrate the growing Al Qaeda scene in the country. It is at this point in the book that Mubin repeats the old claim that ‘very few, if any’ Western intelligence agents had managed to infiltrate Al Qaeda. Obviously, we know that to be untrue, and as this podcast series continues we’ll be looking at other known spies inside Al Qaeda. In the event, the Yemeni authorities didn’t grant Mubin’s visa request so he couldn’t go.
This is something I have a few suspicions about – I’m pretty sure that Canadian intelligence could have made a few phonecalls and got the visa sorted out, if they really wanted Mubin to go to Yemen. The fact they didn’t do that, and merely accepted the Yemeni decision, suggests they had other plans for this particular spy.
Shortly after the failed Yemen mission they asked Mubin to infiltrate some online forums where fundamentalist and possible extremist Muslims liked to hang out. The posts on these forums would later be used as evidence against some of the Toronto 18, especially Zakaria Amara, one of the apparent leaders of the group. From Mubin’s perspective most of the people on the forums were just kids talking about music and the girls at their school and so on, but some – like Amara – were more radical in what they said.
However, it should be noted that some of the statements attributed to the Toronto 18 which was branded as evidence of their extremism were actually quotes from hip-hop tracks. While Anwar Al Awlaki was ultimately killed for apparently radicalising young men through his youtube videos, no one arrested King Conscious.
It also seems clear that Canadian intelligence had been spying on these forums for some time before they told Mubin to start posting on them and befriending their users. According to the documentary Unfair Dealing, all about the Toronto 18, the origins of the investigation involved a Canadian politician.
After a period spying on the forums, in November 2005 CSIS gave Mubin a new mission – infiltrate a group of Muslims who they had under surveillance, who would become the Toronto 18. This is where things get a little weird, because one of his handlers told him ‘It’s very important that you don’t encourage them to do anything that they wouldn’t do on their own. You want to be extra careful on this case.’
What Mubin didn’t know is that CSIS had already told the RCMP about the group, and the RCMP had begun parallel surveillance on them. Clearly there was an aim to gather information on these guys that would be used to arrest them and accuse them of terrorism. They had already flagged some of these men as a threat to national security, but rather than just arrest them there and then they sent in two informants, giving them instructions to not do anything that might appear as provocation or entrapment. We’ll come back to this shortly.
So Mubin very quickly infiltrated the group, and not long after meeting Zakaria Amara, Amara showed him a gun he owned illegally and told him he was planning to run a training camp very soon. If this seems like odd behaviour for a would-be terrorist, that’s because it is. Mubin offered to run the training, referring back to his time in the cadets.
He also met the two others around which this entire plot was based – Fahim Ahmad and Qayyum Abdul Jamal. Jamal was an older man who apparently spent a lot of time at the Islamic center preaching his ‘firebrand’ version of Islam. Fahim was much younger – just 21 when Mubin met him – and he, Amara and Mubin basically ran the training camp.
By this point Mubin had started working for the RCMP, having been handed over to them by CSIS. For the next few months – right up until the arrests of the Toronto 18, he worked as a spy inside the group.
However, after the arrests he underwent another identity crisis. People in his community felt he had entrapped the young men, that he had betrayed his people. He fell back into using cocaine, becoming addicted again and spent a significant chunk of the $300,000 he was given by the government on drugs to try to escape his depression. He also gave a TV interview, which we’ll get to later.
He also got into several arguments with his government handlers, who wanted him to go into witness protection and never see his friends and some of his family ever again. Mubin refused, and the arguments got worse when he found out that the authorities were doing nothing to protect his family – even though they used an armoured convoy to take him from the hotel to the legal hearings and trials that resulted. When he gave the TV interview things got worse still.
So it seems that like other spies – including Omar Nasiri, who we’ll look at in an episode coming soon – the intelligence agencies screwed up the relationship once their spy had done what they needed of him. Mubin completed a masters degree in policing and counter-terrorism after a trip to Saudi Arabia helped him kick his cocaine addiction. These days he runs a security consultancy firm who worked for the UN, Special Operations Command, Interpol, the State Department and NATO.
The Toronto 18: Homegrown Terror or Entrapment Scam?
The subtitle of Shaikh’s book is ‘Inside the Toronto 18, Al Qaeda Inspired Homegrown Terror in the West’. It very much tells the narrative that the 18 were a serious terrorist cell who were stopped due to the courageous work of Mubin.
The first problem with this is Mubin’s co-author, Anne Speckhard. She is an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Georgetown who specialises in PTSD and in the psychology of terrorist motivations. She has worked for the UN and NATO, and her website explains:
She has provided expert consultation to numerous European governments as well as the U.S. Department of Defense regarding programs for prevention and rehabilitation of individuals committed to political violence and militant jihad. In 2006-2007 she worked with the U.S. Department of Defense to design and pilot test the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq.
It gets better. The publisher of the book is Advances Press, who almost exclusively publish books by… Anne Speckhard. The company is based in Maclean Virginia, not far from the headquarters of Booz Allen Hamilton, The Director of National Intelligence and the CIA.
The book goes out of its way to emphasise how the plot was already underway before Mubin was inserted into it, and thus he is absolved of any allegation of entrapment – allegations made by relatives of the accused, journalists and defence lawyers. Before we get into the details, there’s a logical problem with this. Even if a plot is already underway, that doesn’t mean you can’t inject a provocateur in order to get them over the line and do things you can arrest them for.
Technically, if three people sit around talking about robbing a bank then that is a criminal conspiracy, though if they did nothing to prepare for actually robbing a specific bank you’d hope a jury would find them innocent. If the police inserted a fourth member into the group and he arranged for them to obtain weapons, carry out surveillance of targets and so on, that informant would be acting as an agent provocateur. Just because the three talked about doing something before they met the provocateur doesn’t mean he isn’t a provocateur.
The facts of the case do suggest that without the two informants the police would never have had enough to arrest the Toronto 18. The evidence does suggest that Fahim Ahmad and Zakaria Amara were crazy and therefore potentially dangerous. Both regularly talked with Mubin, some of which was recorded, about blowing up this or that or carrying this shooting plot or that beheading plot.
But they had no capacity to act on these ideas, making them wild fantasists rather than criminal conspirators. I’m not saying they posed no danger at all, I’m saying they weren’t the cunning terrorists they made out they were. Boastful, yes. Stupid, yes. Potentially dangerous, yes. But terrorists? I don’t think so.
For one thing they had no sense of operational security, and made no effort to hide what they were doing. They were also hideously incompetent. The ‘training camp’ in December 2005 took them way out into rural Ontario in the middle of winter – hardly a suitable preparation for going to an elite terrorism training school in Pakistan. Most of the people at the camp were kids who had been roped into it, many of whom didn’t bring suitable winter clothing or winter tents. They quite literally could have frozen to death out there, which is as close as any of them came to becoming martyrs.
The only gun at the camp was purchased by Mubin because he had a license to buy firearms due to his experience in the cadets. Without him, the only weapons at the camp would have been paintball guns. Mubin ran the training exercises, which mostly involved paintball, and the one time they tried training the kids with the real rifle none of them were any good, and one dropped the rifle because it was so loud. The ‘training camp’ was a total farce.
According to the Unfair Dealing documentary they even informed the local police of what they were doing, and even the book describes how they went food shopping dressed in full camouflage gear. The idea that they were running a secret terrorism training camp is a fantasy – though it may have been a fantasy that Amara bought into.
Indeed, Mubin describes Amara doing various things that highlight his sheer stupidity. One time Zakaria showed Mubin his gun Mubin found that it was loaded, when Zakaria said it wasn’t. On the way to the training camp they accidentally locked the keys in the van, and had to call a guy out at 3 a.m. to get into the van for them.
Likewise when Fahim Ahmad and Mubin went to look at a house they were thinking about buying as a base of operations, Ahmad talked about digging a tunnel to the garage outside, so they could move equipment to and from the garage without anyone knowing. Mubin points out in the book they could accomplish the same using a cardboard box carried at night-time.
Ahmad and Amara were in the habit of attending the local mosque and Islamic center wearing khakis, like Chechen mujahideen. Zakaria even took to handing out radical DVDs on the street, with his MSN chatname and phone number printed on the discs.
The one semi-successful attempt Amara made to obtain illegal weapons resulted in two guys trying to smuggle the guns in from the US. Ali Dirie had two handguns taped to his thighs and Yasin Mohamed had a gun tucked in his waistband and bullets hidden in his socks. It was a complete joke, the two were caught and ended up in prison. This didn’t stop the Canadian government counting them as two of the Toronto 18, even though they had been arrested and were in prison over a year before the training camp.
The other aspect to Amara is that he seems to have wanted to get caught. When he found a hidden camera in the corridor outside his flat he didn’t decide to back off and shut down his activities. Instead he went to Mubin – a man he had already asked if he was a spy – and gave him the camera. Mubin said he would sell it for $150 which they could use to buy weapons, which apparently cheered up Zakaria enormously. He also told Mubin on multiple occasions that he knew he would get arrested soon.
The other big aspect to the Toronto 18 ‘plot’ was the fertiliser. Just as Zakaria couldn’t have bought guns without Mubin’s help, he couldn’t have bought three tons of fertiliser without the other informant’s help. The informant, whose name is mentioned in the book but I couldn’t find out much about him, had a degree in chemical engineering so he could buy large quantities of ammonium nitrate without setting off any red flags.
The storage locker where the fertiliser was stored was, apparently, rented by the RCMP themselves, which makes sense since it was just down the road from their local headquarters. They also ensured that no ammonium nitrate was actually delivered there, just an inert substance that looked like ammonium nitrate.
Then, there’s the timing of the arrests.
Who is Mubin Shaikh?
Naturally, none of this made it into the book, or at least not in the way I am interpreting it. Some other fairly critical details are missing from the book, such as when Mubin gave an interview saying some of the 18 were innocent and hadn’t done anything wrong. They also overlooked the time when he was charged for assaulting a family member – which may have just been a domestic argument. But they also overlooked how he was charged – after his career as a spy – for assaulting two teenage girls.
It seems fair to ask: Who is Mubin Shaikh? A former intelligence informant who helped build a case against a group of fantasists and idiots who now consults for NATO and the like. That much is certain. A man who has been through several different versions of himself – from party animal to strict Muslim to jihadi sympathiser, to a more liberal Muslim, to police informant to government consultant. He’s even done a TED talk.
The book Undercover Jihadi and the documentary Unfair Dealing present two versions of the Mubin Shaikh story that are almost entirely at odds. Both are guilty of leaving out key information that might help us reconcile these opposing views. For what it’s worth, I lean more towards the idea that he did function if not quite as a provocateur but as a facilitator to help position the targets where the police needed them to be.
However there is one place where the documentary and the book totally contradict one another – did Mubin know about the fertiliser. According to the interview Mubin did with CBC’s The Fifth Estate (which is no longer available online) he didn’t know about the fertiliser or any bomb plot. Given what else we know, this makes sense – it was the other informant who was handling that side of the ‘plot’. But in the book he says that Zakaria showed him a remote detonator he’d been working on, and told him he had bought three tons of ammonium nitrate.
So Mubin’s story isn’t always consistent, even when it comes to critical details on which the entire case hinges. On the other hand, I don’t buy the idea floated in Unfair Dealing that he did this for money to fuel his cocaine habit and he’s simply a liar.
I think most of the story in the book is true, partly because it echoes so many other stories of people who became spies inside so-called Al Qaeda cells. But I also think that the Toronto 18 was little more than three guys who were genuinely a bit nuts, two incompetent gun smugglers, and two police informants. Of the 18, 11 were convicted and Zakaria even wrote a letter of apology for what he had done. This is much more a story of mental illness and police intelligence shenanigans than of homegrown terrorism.