Mubin Shaikh: Why Did a Former Extremist Go Undercover To Fight Terrorism?

Dec 15, 2017
Originally published on December 15, 2017 8:02 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Going Undercover

About Mubin Shaikh's TED Talk

When his childhood friend was connected with a terrorist attack, Mubin Shaikh set out to help combat Islamic extremists--even though he used to be one. So he joined the Canadian Intelligence Service.

About Theo E.J. Wilson

Mubin Shaikh is an expert in radicalization, de-radicalization, and counter-terrorism. As a young man, he trained briefly with members of the Taliban, but eventually abandoned that ideology and became an undercover counter-terrorism operative with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He was a key witness in the infamous 2006 Toronto Terrorism case.

Shaikh has since left the Intelligence Service. He co-authored the book Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit


On the show today, Going Undercover. And sometimes, especially in dangerous situations, the best person to go undercover is probably someone who's already on the inside. So can you please introduce yourself?

MUBIN SHAIKH: My name is Mubin Shaikh. I went through a period of radicalization into extremism in my 20s. I went through a period of de-radicalization after a study in Syria and returned back to Canada to become a counterterrorism operative.

RAZ: Mubin grew up in Toronto, the son of Indian immigrants. And his family was pretty traditional and conservative.

SHAIKH: We did go to the mosque very regularly. And we lived in a apartment building. And at the ground level, there is a recreation room, which was turned into basically a Quran school. And so yeah, that was a very regular feature of my childhood.

RAZ: So you would go to like a Quran school. How often?

SHAIKH: Seven days a week, two hours a day.

RAZ: Starting from what age?


RAZ: So from age 5, you would go every day to Quran school. And what was it like?

SHAIKH: Well, it was a rough environment. You know, I mean, they slapped us around - they did. We were slapped around if we read the Quran incorrectly. So it was a very tough, austere learning environment. I think it put into my mind the notion that religion was something violent.

RAZ: Mubin picks up the story from the TED stage.


SHAIKH: Of course, the public school that I went to during the day was the complete opposite of this environment. The boys and girls mixed. It was a nurturing, caring environment. You weren't slapped if you made a mistake. But one day, when my parents were gone overseas, I had a house party. And unbeknownst to me, my father had told his brother - my uncle - to check on the house while he was gone.

So as a teenager who has this party happening and all the friends are over, in the middle of the party, my uncle walks in. And he begins yelling and screaming and telling everyone to get out. He grabbed me by the scruff of my neck. He says, what have you done? You've shamed the family. You have dishonored and defiled the home. People pray here, he said. You're bringing these people here to do these things?

He called up other uncles, who came to the house, sat me down, surrounded me and berated me over and over, making me feel so guilty over what I had done. And so I told myself that the only way for me to salvage what was left of my credibility, my reputation in the family and in the community was to, quote, unquote, "get religious."

So I took a four-month trip to India and Pakistan. And as I was walking about a rural area, I saw these men who looked like religious men. And I approached them to seek some wisdom from them. But they said to me, like, if you want to bring about change in the world, then you have to do it through jihad. You have to do it through the AK-47. And when I returned back to the mosque that I was staying at, they followed back with me. They let me fire their AK-47, and I was bit by the jihadi bug.


RAZ: OK. So you're in Pakistan and you see these guys who you now know were like Taliban fighters, right?

SHAIKH: Right.

RAZ: And what did you do?

SHAIKH: I thought, you know, let me go and talk to them. You know, they have rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, you know, ammunition belts. Now I'm also undergoing this identity crisis where I'm trying to force this Islamic identity. You know, I'm dealing - I'm trying to experiment with it. I don't know what I want. I just know that I'm supposed to be "religious," quote, unquote. This is what I saw in these guys, right? They were religious but they were militants as well. And for a young, you know, 18-year-old Muslim kid who's there seeing this, this was the epitome of heroism. And that's where - how everything started.

RAZ: So you're there for a couple of months and - what? - you go back to Canada with a renewed kind of vigor and commitment to your religion or to what your perception of what your religion was supposed to be?

SHAIKH: That's right. That's right. You know, now I had to - I returned back to Canada. And I am now more politically aware, all right. I'm now talking about - I'm thinking and talking about, you know, the - what's happening jihad in the Muslim world. And so I fell into those conversations. I was, you know, I was offered to be able to go and join the fight. A couple of my friends went to - two guys went to Yemen. One guy went to Pakistan. I never heard from them again. And so that's - yeah, that's the mindset I had come into.

RAZ: And you were involved with these guys for quite a few years, right?

SHAIKH: Right.

RAZ: So what happened? Like, what made you start to take a step back, like, away from them?

SHAIKH: What happened was - so, you know, after '95, I come back. I'm in the networks. I'm recruiting other kids. You know, I'm really involved in the activities that these guys are doing. 1998, I get married. The year after that, 1999, I had my first child. And now, that kind of calms me down a bit.

RAZ: But what was the, like, the tipping point?

SHAIKH: 9/11 happened. And 9/11 was really the moment that really pushed me over and said, you know what? I'm out of this. Like, this kind of thinking is obviously wrong. So I thought to myself, how is it that I came to subscribe to this idea in the first place? And I started to rethink, you know, what I had gone through and what I had experienced. And I came back. I realized, I need to study my religion properly. I don't know Arabic. I didn't study, you know, the Islamic sciences. So I said, screw it. I'm going to go and study.


RAZ: When we come back in just a moment, how Mubin Shaikh's growing doubts about extremism led him to go undercover as a counterterrorism operative. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - Going Undercover. And we were just hearing from Mubin Shaikh, who as a young man fell in with a group of extremists. But after September 11, 2001, Mubin realized that the people around him didn't actually know that much about Islam and neither did he. And so he decided to move to Syria, which back then was a major hub for Islamic scholarship. Here's Mubin Shaikh on the TED stage.


SHAIKH: I sold my belongings. I took my wife and my two young children at the time and I left. The Islamic university that I attended, I met a young Islamic scholar who would challenge my interpretations. I spent a year-and-a-half with him. We went over chapter and verse of what extremists use, cherry pick and mutilate the understanding of Islam. I came to realize that my interpretations were completely wrong, and with a newfound understanding of the religion, returned to Canada in 2004.

Of course, the first week I was back, in the front page of the paper was a young man who had been arrested on terrorism charges in connection with the London bomb plot. That young man was from my Quran school that I attended as a child. He was my friend that used to sit next to me. So I contacted the security intelligence service. I thought, this has to be a mistake. But of course after that phone call, an hour later, I was sitting across the table from an intelligence agent, intelligence officer, who, of course, recruited me to become an undercover counterterrorism operative, or as I saw it, doing my Islamic duty to protect innocent people.


RAZ: So what did the Canadian intelligence officers want you to do?

SHAIKH: Well, I mean, the mandate of the Intelligence Service is to collect information that is information on threats to security of Canada. So my job was to become friends with the targets, find out what they're up to, find out what they're doing. Tell us if this guy is somebody we need to keep watching or not. So, for example, in the end of November 2005, they sent me to a group of guys. They said, OK, tell us what they're about. And then in June 2006, after being seven months operational on that group, 18 guys got arrested on various criminal offenses, one of which was of course terrorism.

RAZ: What motivated you to do this? I mean, a lot of people might think, God, am I a turncoat? It seems like you were sort of thinking, I'm angry. Like, these people are giving a false impression of my religion. Like, I want to root them out.

SHAIKH: Well, that was my motivator because these people were ruining the religion. I mean, I did go through periods of, you know, second-guessing myself. And, you know, my God, what am I doing here - right? - thoughts.

RAZ: Yeah.

SHAIKH: You know, for example, I'll give you two examples. Like, one where I'm in the mosque. I'm in prayer next to targets of investigations. And I remember, you know, thinking and saying to God, what am I doing? Like, I'm praying but I'm spying on these guys. The second instance that I keep remembering was the main target of the investigation. You know, I was in a car that was interceptor - video and audio recording equipment inside it. And he comes out with his infant daughter. And the infant daughter, of course, knows me or recognizes me. And she comes into my arms. And I'm cooing with her and playing with her and smiling. But I'm thinking inside, you know, your father is probably going to go to prison. You know, I wonder what's going to happen to you.

RAZ: Were you ever scared?

SHAIKH: Of course. I mean, there were times where I did feel fear. They were armed, I was not. They made it clear that they would kill, you know, traitors and spies. So certainly the threat of that was there. I was prepared for certain eventualities, and thank God, you know, nothing came of that.

RAZ: I mean, do you think that that idea of - I mean, the idea of going undercover, we often associate that idea with deception. But on the other hand, it can seem like exposing wrongs, you know?

SHAIKH: Well, yeah. That's - I mean, and that's exactly that, you know, that spectrum. There is a higher objective - right? - a greater good that you do this for because, as I mentioned, it is a necessary, a mandatory ingredient. Like, you cannot get evidence or information of covert wrongdoing unless you're undercover. There is simply no other way to do it.

RAZ: Do you think that by going undercover, you saved lives?

SHAIKH: I have no doubt that I saved lives. I know for a fact that I prevented attacks and people are alive today because of that.


RAZ: Mubin Shaikh. By the way, if you're wondering, Mubin is allowed to talk about his undercover work because he had to testify in that Toronto terrorism case. And as a result, he can never go undercover again. Today, he's a counterterrorism expert, and he advises government agencies. You can see Mubin's full talk at

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.