On a cold day in December 2005, a group of about 20 Islamic extremists gathered together in a wooded area near Orillia, Ontario. Sitting around a campfire, the ringleader delivered a fiery sermon comparing the countryside to Chechnya and calling for victory over "Rome," a veiled reference to Canada. "Whether we are ultimately arrested, killed or tortured, our mission is greater than the lives of a few individuals," he exhorted them. He also said, "We are not officially al-Qaeda, but we share their principles and methods." The group then began training for the execution of terrorist attacks.

A home video of the two-week convocation shows masked men in winter camouflage marching through the snow in the Ontario forest, carrying out maneuvers while waving black flags and shouting "Allahu akbar" – "God is great" in Arabic.

Incongruously, the person who gave the fiery sermons on jihad and played a key role in setting up and running the camp, while Muslim, was not a terrorist, nor was he an extremist, although he did purchase supplies and gave firearms lessons. In fact, the group's leader, Mubin Shaikh, was a government mole and informant who had infiltrated the group and quickly became its primary "military trainer."

Mubin discovered – or as the defense counsel later argued, instigated – preparations for a large-scale terrorist attack in southern Ontario. The group planned to detonate truck bombs in at least three locations and open fire in a crowded area. They'd already ordered three metric tons (6,600 pounds) of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, a potentially powerful ingredient often used as a quarry and mining explosive, to build the bombs; constructed a remote control detonator; and scouted out a safe house in which to store weapons, practice military drills and harbor terrorists. They also planned on storming various buildings such as the Canadian Broadcasting Centre and the Canadian Parliament building and taking hostages. Law enforcement authorities identified other targets as well, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Peace Tower and several power grids. Plans to behead Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and other parliamentarians, were also tossed about.

By March 2005 America's Joint Terrorism Task Force had become involved in the investigation, including the monitoring of Internet chat sites. The information Mubin supplied to American and Canadian intelligence agencies brought about widespread raids that were carried out by a Canadian interagency task force called the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET), which coordinated the activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the CSIS, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and other authorities.

The "Toronto 18 case," as the subsequent prosecution against 18 Canadian Muslims came to be known, ultimately resulted in 11 guilty pleas and convictions.

The case also had ramifications on the other side of the border. On August 12, 2009, Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, an American linked to the Toronto 18, was convicted of aiding terrorist groups by sending videotapes of US landmarks overseas and plotting to support "violent jihad." A judge also convicted Syed Haris Ahmed of conspiring to support terrorism in the US and abroad. Authorities alleged that Ahmed and Sadequee took a week-long trip to Canada in March 2005 to meet with members of the Toronto 18.

The arrests prompted a spate of criticism by American politicians of Canada's security measures. Congressman Peter King was reported to have said that "There's a large al-Qaeda presence in Canada...because of their very liberal immigration laws, because of how political asylum is granted so easily."

Congressman John Hostettler, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, said that the arrests illustrated that "South Toronto," as he referred to it, served as an "enclave for radical discussion," where people had "a militant understanding of Islam." His comments were widely condemned in Canada as being "completely uninformed and ignorant."

Uniformed or not, the case served as a wakeup call about homegrown Canadian Islamic terrorism – a phenomenon confirmed the other week with the dual attacks in Ottawa, the nation's capital. While the attacks mean different things to different people, for Mubin Shaikh, whose life story is currently being written, it meant becoming a much sought-after commentator on Islamic terrorism for CNN and other international news outlets. When we spoke last week we joked about that.

"I guess you're now the go-to guy for CNN."

"They might as well give me my own show," he said, laughing.

BACKGROUND

"I was born in Toronto to Indian parents. Conservative household. Basically, two parallel tracks developed from that: public school during the day and Koran school later in the evening."

"Your parents emigrated from India?"

"Yes. They were both born there. My dad actually grew up in the UK and did his studies there. Years ago there was a Canadian organization that was participating in a career fair. He put in an application and they offered him a job. Meantime, my mother was still in India, so he went back to marry her and they both came to live in Canada. I have a younger sister and brother two years apart. I was born on December 29, 1975."

"Your parents are both Muslims?"

"Yes."

"Tell me something about your youth."

"It was your typical Indo-Pak madrassa style childhood, the wooden benches, the rocking back and forth."

"Being a dark-skinned Muslim, did you ever experience any prejudice?"

"No. I felt normal, part of the general society. I didn't feel marginalized in any sense because there were so many others just like me. We played with everyone else in public school. The only difference was that I attended a Muslim school in the evenings."

"And you identified yourself at some point as a jihadist?"

"Yes, especially after 1995. When I was 19 I went with a religious group to India and Pakistan and had a chance encounter with the Taliban. They basically extolled the virtues of jihad, of fighting in the path of God. I was enamored of the way they spoke and looked. By the time I returned to Canada that September they'd taken over [Pakistan]. I took that as a validation of their world view. I remained in that mentality until 9/11."

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

"What effect did 9/11 have on you?"

"It made me reassess everything, mainly because it was such a massive spectacle. I was getting a lot of phone calls from family and friends. In fact, so many people were calling to discuss what happened that my wife joked, 'Are you sure you don't have anything to do with this?' But I also had friends calling and asking, 'Is this really what you believe in?'

"In other words, I was being challenged on multiple fronts. I needed to make a clear distinction in terms of what kind of interpretation of religion I subscribed to. That's really what made me reconsider my world view and prompted me to go study the language and religion further. The following year I ended up in Syria, where I studied Islam and Arab culture in a holistic manner rather than the selective text reading that a lot of people engage in."

"Did 9/11 make you feel proud in the sense that Islamic terrorists could accomplish something like that?"

"Actually, yes. I did initially celebrate the attacks. I was happy that they occurred. I was listening to the radio in my car when the news first broke and I actually exclaimed aloud, 'God is great! The Americans finally got what was coming to them.' Then when I got to my workplace and someone said that a second plane had hit, it dawned on me that it might be a deliberate attack and I thought, Please God, don't let it be a Muslim. Of course, when I found out it was, that's what really made me begin to question what I was involved in."

"So which is it? Did 9/11 radicalize you more or make you more anti-radical?"

"That's the thing. It was confusing because I had come to subscribe to some of those views, but this was its logical conclusion – and I didn't like it. So I had these contradictions about what I was feeling. I was in a little bit of a disarray psychologically and emotionally. It prompted me to revisit this within myself."

"Was your Islamic schooling in Canada of the radical bent?"

"Very conservative. Literalistic. Some people like to use the term 'fundamentalist.'"

"Then 9/11 came along and you had this awakening."

"Yes."

OFF TO SYRIA

"What were you trying to accomplish by going to Syria?" I ask.

"Two things. One, I knew that a global war would be starting soon, an Armageddon-type, apocalyptic conflict in the Middle East, so I decided to go there. If it kicked off while I was there so be it, but in the meantime I'd be studying. My idea was to study other religious and biblical texts as well. I learned all about Jewish history, the prophets and scriptures, even 'Shema Yisrael.' Of course, it was all from an Islamic perspective. But I wanted to study the religion properly because 9/11 made me think that something was fundamentally wrong with killing innocent people. It's one thing to justify attacks on soldiers and state targets, but attacking buildings where even Muslims are inside is entirely different. These guys didn't discriminate. How do you justify killing indiscriminately like that?"

"So you were trying to find a justification for the attacks from the perspective of Islamic teachings?"

"I was trying to make sense of it. I could find no justification for what they had done."

"How long were you in Syria?"

"Two years."

"You joined a madrassa?"

"I was studying in a more formalized Islamic system. While I was there I met someone who later blew himself up in the Mike's Place bombing in Israel. He was in the same literature department where I was studying Arabic, along with a number of other like-minded people, foreigners dressed in overt Islamic garb, lots of Ind Pak Brits, some Americans. Those are the kinds of radical people I met in Syria."

"And you were becoming more radicalized during this time?"

"I hadn't fully gotten out of that mentality. That's the point I'm trying to make. When you're going through a period of radicalization, there's no magic switch that suddenly goes on and you're radicalized. There are a number of stages along the way. Similarly, getting out of it was also a process. While I still had those inclinations I was facing this very obvious contradiction. That's actually part of the de-radicalization process."

"Is this something you share with experts on terrorism?"

"Certainly."

"You studied under Syrian imams from whom you were receiving a more radical view of the teachings of the Koran?"

"No. Just the opposite. The extreme interpretations I had subscribed to were now being broken down and I began to abandon that mindset. So while I still had these inclinations of fighting the kafir [infidels] and being at war with the West, I gradually changed as the Syrian scholars showed me a more holistic reading of the text, moving away from the selective reading I'd been doing before."

"Do you think the more selective reading is a distortion?"

"Yes. Of course. That's why whenever I hear these guys quoting certain verses I recognize that they're the same ones I used to quote in the same way. I'll give you an example. There's one verse, 'God says strike terror into the heart.' But if you actually look in the Koran it says, 'God says to the angels: Strike terror into their hearts.' It's not an instruction to humans to go out and incite terror. They omit those three words.

"Or Chapter 9, Verse 5: 'Kill the infidels. Kill the non-believers wherever you find them.' In fact, it doesn't say 'non-believers'; it says 'polytheists.' That refers to those people in the times of Mohammed who opposed him because of his belief in monotheism. So they render it 'non-believers in Islam' and apply it to anyone and everyone."

"Why was it that in Syria of all places you became de-radicalized, when people look at Syria as a very radical place?"

"Syria is ruined now, but when I was there from 2002 to 2004 there was still a semblance of stability. Sufism is very popular in Syria; that's largely the reason why. The Sufis are very loving and tolerant; their hearts are open. They don't judge other people. They develop spiritual relationships. It was a new, positive approach for me."

"Did you end up getting a diploma in Islamic studies there?"

"No. I was supposed to stay for a much longer period of time, but after the Mike's Place bombing the government started putting pressure on foreign students. I'd already been there for two years and had enough of the police state so I decided to go home."

GOING UNDERCOVER

"One day after I got back I saw a picture of a guy I used to know from Koran school on the front page of the newspaper. He'd been arrested on terrorism charges in connection with the London fertilizer plot. I thought, this has to be a mistake. I know the family; they're good people. Let me give him a character reference. So I phoned up the intelligence service and said, 'I know this person. He used to be a friend of mine when we were younger; there must be a mistake.' There's no mistake, they assured me, but we'd really like to talk to you. Not realizing that I'd just become involved in a terrorism investigation, I said, 'Sure, let's talk.' They basically took that as an opportunity to recruit me. They said, 'We'll send you back into the community and you can tell us whom you consider to be a threat to national security and why.' Now that I had this new worldview, I thought I could do it. It would be easy for me to move among these groups or individuals."

"What year was this?"

"Mid-2004 until late 2005. I was undercover on a number of investigations. Then, as you already know, one of those cases became a criminal prosecution. Eight months later they were arrested on terrorism charges in what came to be known as the case of the Toronto 18."

"I understand that your father heads a mosque?"

"Yes, the Masjid-el-Noor."

"It's located in the Toronto area?"

"Yes."

"Did you tell your father that you were working undercover for Canadian intelligence?"

"No."

"Did you have to change your lifestyle?"

"No. I just continued whatever I was doing before. That's precisely why I was able to infiltrate these groups. I was already known to them. I had a reputation as a supporter of their cause. I'd even travelled to Syria."

"So they trusted you?"

"Yes."

"You joined these terrorist groups as a member?"

"They were extremist groups rather than terrorist groups. They didn't commit violence, so technically they're not terrorists but supporters of terrorism. I was sent to both groups and individuals within those groups on multiple occasions. I also did chat-room penetrations, cyber-stuff. The last group I was sent to infiltrate was the Toronto 18."

"Is it anything like joining the Mafia, where you have to take an oath?"

"No. You just play along. You're just part of it. You yield to the authority of the leader."

"Did you feel like a traitor? Did you have conflicted feelings about betraying their trust?"

I felt it was my religious duty to stop people from committing acts of violence in the name of my religion.

"I knew what I was doing. I felt it was my religious duty to stop people from committing acts of violence in the name of my religion. My operating principles and my mandate were very clear. I never once thought as if I was betraying anyone. I felt sorry for them in the sense that it was like an accident waiting to happen. Actually, I felt like they were betraying my faith in doing what they were doing."

"Did you consider these people your friends?"

"In one part of my mind they were my friends. We developed relationships. I pretty much saw some of them almost every other day. In that sense they were my brothers. We prayed together; I did everything you would expect a friend and a brother to do. But I had a greater responsibility that extended beyond personal loyalties."

THE PLOT

"How did you uncover the plot?"

"In late 2005 I was given a file by the intelligence service, a dossier with names and pictures. That's usually what happened; I'd be told, 'These are the targets, here are their names, this is what they look like, they're at this location. Can you find out about them?' I went to the location and sat down at a table. No one was there yet. There was supposed to be some kind of presentation about what was happening in the community with regard to Muslims in prison and how they need our support. Then a young man walked in and sat down right across from me. His face was covered with a scarf but when he removed it I saw it was one of the people I was supposed to find. So of course I was nervous but I kept my cool.

"We started to talk, the usual 'what's your name, where you from' chit-chat. A few minutes later his friends showed up and I recognized them as the other individuals who were being watched! After the meeting we all went outside. If you're a religious minded person you'd call it Providence. We started talking about how it's really bad what they're doing to the Muslims and how the government is really evil.

"Then one of the ringleaders said, 'If those government agents ever came to my door they know what I would do' – and he made a shooting gesture. I took that as an opportunity to take out my gun license. Of course, after seeing that, their eyes grew wide. Someone even made a comment, 'Look at the grace of Allah that He sends people like this to us!'

"Then they started getting into the rhetoric of what America was doing to the Muslims in Iraq, and since Canada is an ally of the US, Canada is a legitimate target. I played along as if it all made sense. Then I mentioned that I had some military training. I was in the cadets. I was an instructor. I had trained with the reserves and regular forces. So they told me they had a training camp and asked if I was interested in training their people. The whole infrastructure was in place before I was sent in. "In truth, the government was already aware of this camp but needed someone like me who was trustworthy to verify the information. And that's what I did. I confirmed that these guys were planning activities that are criminal offenses. The federal police then took over the investigation."

"Can you specify what their plans consisted of?"

"The idea was for me to bring the group up to a level of readiness so they could conduct attacks: power plants, nuclear plants, critical infrastructure targets, police and intelligence sites. The leader had a shopping list of things he wanted to get done and needed someone to train the group's members. I became that person. The camp would convene during winter break in the last two weeks in December. We were literally camped out in tents on somebody's property. The police had already notified the owner what was going on.

"We conducted war games, staged mock combat scenarios and practiced first aid. We were basically 'G.I. Jihadis' making obstacle courses out of fallen trees, branches and stumps. And everything was under heavy surveillance by special operations embedded in the forest.

"After it was over our efforts continued. Two months later we went looking for a safe house, a location where these individuals could hide out after committing an attack somewhere. There were attempts to procure firearms. One possibility was getting weapons from regular criminal gangsters. We talked about using bank scams to collect money to send people overseas for additional training. All these things were going on at the same time."

"Did this group have any interaction with global terrorism?"

"No. It was all domestic. They were also what you call 'self-starters' or 'self-radicalizers,' meaning that it wasn't as if somebody came in from outside and convinced them of ideas they didn't previously believe in."

BUSTED

"How long did it take until they were caught?"

"The investigation took eight months. Finally, in June 2006, 18 people were taken into custody in a series of dramatic arrests. It was presented as a major case of homegrown terrorism. The subsequent prosecutions went on for another four years. For a long time there was a ban on releasing information to the public, so a lot of people bought into various conspiracy theories that it was all a set-up, both in the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Some people thought I was the bad guy, that I'd made them do it. They didn't realize that the plan was in motion long before I was sent in. A lot of people were skeptical. They had this idealistic worldview that it can't happen to us – we're such nice people in Canada! This narrative went on for a long time until the evidence started to come out. There were audio intercepts. There were video intercepts. Some individuals pled guilty. That's when the public finally realized that something was going on.

"At the end of the day, 11 people were convicted. Seven defendants had their charges effectively dropped because of my testimony. I was truthful, and the testimony just didn't support further prosecution so they were let off. Of course, I was still considered the bad guy."

"How did the government deal with the claim of entrapment, that you'd induced others to participate in a criminal scheme?"

"That's a common accusation but here's the difference: Entrapment is making somebody do something he wouldn't normally do. If I'm a supporter of terrorism and somebody calls me and says we really have to do something about these infidels, I'm going to say, 'Yeah, you're right. Let's do something.' That's not entrapment; that's me getting caught. If I wasn't already inclined a certain way I wouldn't do it.

"I completely reject the notion that agents make people do things. Agents cannot make people do anything. For example, if an undercover cop gives you $20 and says, 'Go buy me a piece of crack,' and you show him to the door, you're demonstrating that you're not about that. If he coerces you and says, 'Here's $100. Go get me $20 worth of crack and keep the change,' that might be considered enticement. But if the person willingly takes the bait, then that tells you it's something he normally does."

"And you testified in these trials?"

"Yes. I was called to testify in five hearings."

"How harsh were the sentences that were meted out?"

"A few people received significant sentences, in some cases life, which is 20 years in Canada. Others got lighter sentences."

MITIGATING PERSONAL THREATS

"Some of these guys got off and are now walking the streets of Toronto. How is it that you're still alive?"

"The answer is these weren't hardcore killers. They were still a very dangerous threat, but these were young kids, amateurs. A lot of people think of terrorists as fanatical crazies but it's only a caricature. Some of them are; some of them aren't. In that sense, I was dealing with people who presented a lesser threat. But they were young, disillusioned, disenfranchised and angry, and wanted to commit violence.

"Number two, I'm known in the community. I come from a respectable family. A lot of people respect my father so they see me as kind of a wayward son and overlook it.

"Number three, I'm not anti-Muslim. I don't believe that Islam is a religion of terror or that most Muslims are violent. But I'm honest and say that there are people who subscribe to these deviant interpretations and we need to call them out on it. My position is balanced."

"Don't get me wrong," I say. "I believe that what you did was heroic and that every upstanding person would agree. But you are now in a very public position, being interviewed on international news channels. Some of the people watching might have a different perspective. There might be some guy in Iran who thinks that this Mubin guy has to be taken out."

"Yes, I am concerned. I'm pretty sure a whole bunch of people think like that. They've even told me so directly on Twitter. I get occasional threats. 'We're gonna cut your head off.' 'I can't wait to see your beheading on YouTube.'"

"Are you planning to go underground?"

"Not at all."

"And you still openly attend your father's mosque?"

"Yes, but I hope I've mitigated the threat. I'm not anti-Muslim. To some, I'll always be the enemy and I can't change that. But I can't be buddies with everyone.

"But here's the kicker: Two of the people who were imprisoned have reached out to me – well, to my father – for de-radicalization, knowing full well that he's my father and that I'm the architect of the de-radicalization program. As I said, these weren't hardcore terrorists. They're actually good candidates for de-radicalization, and I'd like to use that fact to show the community and the greater Canadian and global public that de-radicalization does work. Look at these guys; they're now working with the same agent who testified against them in court. De-radicalization works in everyone's favor. Locking them up and throwing away the key isn't a solution. The big concern now is that we need to convince other Muslims that terrorism isn't something you want to engage in, and here's why."

"So you see yourself as someone who can save Muslim youngsters from taking the wrong path?"

"There's a verse in the Koran that says, 'It is ascribed to the tribe of Israel that if you save one life it is as if you have saved all of humankind, and if you take one life it is as if you've murdered all of mankind.' A lot of Muslims quote only the first part. So I'm even more religious than I was before.

"I've also gone the academic route. I already completed my master's in policing, intelligence and counterterrorism, and now I'm working on a PhD in psychology at the University of Liverpool. I got a full scholarship. I'm considered to be an expert on radicalization. I consult with very high level agencies of the American, British, Canadian and Australian governments. I even attended a NATO conference."

TERRORISM IN CANADA

"In your opinion, how nervous should Canadians be about domestic terrorism?"

"My advice is the same as the famous British saying: Keep calm and carry on. Terrorism will remain a concern. If the grievances that give rise to this sort of activity are unresolved, then the symptoms will continue to manifest."

"So it's a serious threat?"

"Of course. And an ongoing one. It won't be over tomorrow or the next year."

"How serious was the incident we just witnessed in Ottawa the other week?"

"It's serious in the sense of its psychological impact on the public. That's really what counts."

"What percentage of Canadian Muslims do you think supports extremists?"

"I'd say a sizable percentage. It's not small. It's not negligible. It doesn't approach mainstream levels. But it's more than you'd think."

"Would you say about 30%?"

"No, that's too high. Probably more like 20%."

This article originally appeared in Amimagazine.org