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Author: Mubin Shaikh
The attacks of 9/11 were a shock to me.  How could I have come to accept a group that openly supported such tactics? I knew from my study of the faith – as well as through my military cadet experience – that these tactics could never be justified.  I resolved that I would go and study Islam in Syria where I would spend 2 years with Arabic and Islamic Studies.  I was now confronted with the realization of my flawed interpretation of the Quran (considered to be the speech of Allah) and the Hadeeth (collected separately as the speech of the Prophet). Together, these two make up the primary sources of Islam.  With a newfound ability to understand the Arabic, I would come to learn the contexts of the verses I used to cite, learn the history around them and appreciate them in a greater context.  I was now going through a period of what I later learned was, “deradicalization” – a full cognitive shift away from extremism.  Just as I had come into radicalization, it was the ideological route that brought me out and this was through directed study of the primary Islamic sources.

I returned to Canada in 2004 with a newfound appreciation for the rights Muslims have in Canada. Syria, as far as I was concerned, was a police state.  One day, I looked at the local newspaper and staring me in the face was a large photo of a friend from my Madressa days: Momin Khawaja.  He had been arrested on terrorism charges in connection to a London, England bomb plot in which he was making the detonator.  I was sure this was a mistake and contacted the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to give a character reference for Momin.  Little did I realize, it was now out of the hands of CSIS and in the courts but they were very interested to speak with me.

One intelligence agent came to talk to me and put to me the prospect of consulting with the Service to be the bridge between the two cultures: Muslim and Canadian.  They directed me to their “targets” who turned out to be individuals that the Service already had information on.  I was never told of any information they may or may not have had and I was supposed to be an objective observer in this regard.  They empowered me with the discretion to tell them who I considered to be a threat to the security of Canada – why or why not.  The details of these cases are not important – and cannot be divulged anyway – but suffice it to say, I performed this objective verification until late 2005 when one of those investigations took a very sharp turn: the individuals committed criminal offences related to terrorism (forming a group, taking actions in pursuit of a terrorist objective which included bombings in the streets downtown).  I now traversed from the Service to the federal police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and was now tasked with collecting evidence in furtherance of a criminal prosecution in open court.  I remained operational until June 2006 when 18 individuals would be arrested in a very public manner.  The media explosion was significant and here I was, at the centre of it all.  It was a profound experience especially seeing how the various narratives (pro state vs pro Muslim) emerged and how, when left unchallenged, came to be taken as truth.  In the next four years, there would be five legal proceedings, each one trickling out more information about the case and reinforcing the negative feedback to the Muslim community regarding terrorists in their midst.  This in turn, forced a closing of the proverbial ranks in the Muslim community who was already feeling under siege in the post 9/11 environment.  In order to make sense of what was happening, I undertook a Master degree in Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism (MPICT) by distance education with an Australian university (Macquarie) for which “work experience” was required.  Due to the case having been made public, my background was easily verifiable.

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Once all the hearings were completed in May 2010, I decided to apply my experiences and academic training and perpetuate publicly, the idea of countering the ideology I was exposed to in my own days and how I experienced them as an undercover operative observing others.  I could see reflections of my own self in the individuals under investigation but knew I had a job to do.  The evidence of their guilt was overwhelming and I did not have any moral objections with what I was doing. However, I could see that they were misguided and opportunities to re-guide were important to make available.

For the past few years, I have been intimately involved in online and real life counter-radicalization (offering alternative messages), disengagement (a behavioural shift away from extremism) and deradicalization (a full cognitive shift away from extremism).  I have discussed and debated with wannabe’s who are online as well as fighters who have gone to Syria and are engaged in combat as we speak.  The challenge is a monumental one for the West because the negligence of intervention in Syria has created the perfect environment in which these individuals can draw motivation for taking action.  Other events the world over, including what seems to be the implosion of the Arab and Muslim world, are creating a sense of moral outrage among these individuals that cannot easily be countered by words alone.  I have observed in myself the feelings of despair and outrage after seeing thousands of images of death and suffering emerging from these hot spots and thankfully, am able to recognize the signs of developing PTSD and vicarious suffering that is a natural result of subjecting oneself to these images day in and day out.  Due to my training, I know how to identify what is happening in my mind and have multiple avenues of de-stressing that keep me stable.  What about young kids who are not trained and are in this situation? These are the individuals who we will end up reading about in the newspapers one day because of the powerful driver that emotion can be to the human being.

We are already at a disadvantage in terms of where we stand today because prevention is something that is supposed to be done before these events occur and given how many countless articles have been written and conferences that have been held, we still don’t have a meaningful counter radicalization program in North America.  The UK is struggling with having its program resonate with at-risk individuals but that is to be expected because those individuals have no respect, no loyalty and no sense of justice to the country in which they live.  This is a problem across all of Europe now with young Muslim youth from virtually every European country with a Muslim diaspora and convert community.  Australia has already moved to confiscate passports of those who have wanted to travel but now they are left with the prospect of having these individuals divert their energy to the domestic front.  Canada has already seen multiple cases in regard to the Syria conflict as well, more so than the United States.  This really is developing to become a serious problem in the very near future.

The biggest problem I see is that countering radicalization after the fact is deeply flawed as a strategy.  This is because ideas have now become entrenched due to the cumulative effect of watching visceral videos and on the flip side, the constant vilification and demonization of Muslims in mass media which serves only to isolate and alienate the community.  This in turn, reinforces the notion of a war on Islam and forces young and energetic Muslims to become hyper-defensive.  To dislodge those views is extremely difficult.  It will require a merging of technology, messaging and physical interaction in a way that resonates with at-risk individuals and gives them a sense of meaning and purpose that is consistent with their notions of identity, personal and social.

How we can achieve this, what mechanism we can use, what technological platforms are most suitable – these are all questions that need to be answered yesterday otherwise, we will fail to see what comes tomorrow in terms of emerging threats but also, emerging opportunities.