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News | June 28, 2019

Former jihadist visits DIA Strategic Intelligence Leadership Course

By Ally Rogers, DIA Public Affairs Officer

His opening statement captivated the entire classroom. His words hung in the air, nearly visible and reverberating, as every set of eyes widened and focused on Mubin Shaikh. He said it again:

“After high school, I became radicalized. I became an extremist. A jihadi.”

As part of DIA’s Strategic Intelligence Leadership Course, the Academy of Defense Intelligence hosted Shaikh for a two-hour presentation for international fellows. Before turning expert witness and burning his undercover identity, Shaikh infiltrated terrorist organizations to gather information, collect evidence and provide target assessments and organization analysis for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

The native Canadian grew up attending a “madrasa,” a school where he learned and studied the teachings of the Quran, but believed he lacked an understanding of the core religion. Shaikh explained that at the end of high school he had an identity crisis, so he traveled to India, Pakistan and Syria in search for faith and direction. While on “Tablighi Jamaat” – a nonpolitical global missionary movement that focuses on urging Muslims to return to practicing Islam – Shaikh had a chance encounter with the Taliban. He began to learn about the terrorist culture, which contradicted what he had been studying and practicing.

“I thought, ‘How do you say this is jihad when you are blowing up people in churches when they are praying?’ It's impossible!” he said of the Taliban ideology.

His passion for and devotion to the religion gave him strength and pride to stand against those who committed faith-based terrorist actions. Soon after returning to Canada, he began working for the government to expose criminal activity.

“For a few years, I was undercover. I infiltrated different groups,” he said. “I connected with different people, sometimes in the chat rooms to see who was recruiting, who was being recruited, what do they say to them, do they only do it online or do they go offline.”

When he would find actionable intelligence, Shaikh would send a report to his Canadian government contact for processing. Eventually, he testified in five hearings through the course of five years, and helped dismantle numerous terrorist cells. Through his experience and exposure, Shaikh generated a simplified five-tier model of how radicalization leads to violent extremism.

“When people get angry, they want to do something about it. Sometimes they will do things on their own – like write a letter or go to a protest. They might join a group – like associations for refugees,” he said. “Most people are happy to just do that. The majority of radicalized people do not become violent. However, those who do become violent – there are several things that you can observe.”

Shaikh’s theory on how extremists become violent suggests that it begins with a person’s cognitive framing — ideology, upbringing, and cultural exposure. He said through the formative period of observance, absorption and paradigm construction, a person’s beliefs are organized and set the foundation for how someone will respond to those who are different.

“When you don’t know about other cultures it’s easy to hate them,” he said, adding that interfaith exposure and activities are pivotal for prevention of violent extremism.

After considering a person’s upbringing, Shaikh begins his five-tier model with geopolitics. 

“Geopolitics. I’m talking about wars and conflicts - people will look at if the war is being done by their family or to their family,” he said.

Next is deprivation or frustrations, when something is taken away or perceived as not being provided. The object could be as abstract as attention and affection or as tangible as water or clothing. The third tier identifies conflicts of meaning and identity, seen when concrete evidence is in direct conflict with something of value to a person. For example, in Shaikh’s experience with the Taliban – their ideology was in direct conflict with his religious upbringing and teaching; had he not rejected their position, he would have been vulnerable to violent extremist influence. Shaikh linked the fourth tier, adventure, with the third. This is the phase where people tend to reach out or self-express in a different manner.

The final tier is money.

“Sometimes people think that if someone is very poor that they are more likely to be an extremist,” Shaikh said. “Sometimes this is true. But we see often, especially in the West, where people have a good job and went to university – they have a good life, but still go down the road to extremism. The point on money is sometimes yes, it’s a factor, and sometimes no.”

Shaikh also explained there are social behaviors that are strong indicators for extremism. This includes the justification or glorification of violence, martyrdom through lone or group action, including self-made propaganda; intensity of exclusivity or hyper-activity in covert, paramilitary operations; contact with known violent extremists; and the recruiting of others. Another social activity, related to religion, may be seen through radicalization of literature; such as in Islamic sources that identify violent extremists as those who pray, fast and appear to be pious Muslims, but corrupt the religion when they become powerful.

“The best way to fight (terrorism) is through religion,” said Shaikh. “Religion is to jihad as war crimes is to rules of engagement.

“People are afraid to talk about religion and terrorism. They are two extremes. You have to be able to meet in the middle, but you can’t ignore environmental factors. The way you were raised will always be with you, regardless of how much you reject it.”

He pointed out that some countries, like the U.S., are equipped to prosecute and hold terrorists. However, not all countries have that infrastructure. So, he recommends the implementation of a prevention and intervention program, similar to what is offered in Canada.

This program focuses on the cooperation and transparency of trusted intermediaries and subject matter experts, who come together to offer training and activities to help reengage people into a healthy, positive community.  

Additionally, he noted that not everyone can recover from the brainwashing of terror organizations. However, it is our responsibility to try.

Note: Mubin Shaikh is a published author and appeared on CNN, CBC, ABC and NBC on matters related to extremism and terrorism. Among testifying in Canadian supreme courts, he’s also testified as an expert for the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security, NATO, the National Counterterrorism Center and Special Operations Command Central.