Pamir Hakimzadah was a third-year engineering student at Ryerson in 2014. But at some point during his undergraduate degree, he gained increasingly radical Islamic beliefs and began to sympathize with the Islamic State group (ISIS) — so he left Canada to join them.

His goal was to make it to Syria where he could join ISIS militants. But in Turkey, he was reported to police by a suspicious cab driver and detained by authorities.

Now, at 29-years-old, Hakimzadah has pled guilty to leaving Canada with the intent to join a terror group. In February of 2019, he was sentenced to six months in prison in addition to the three years and seven months he has already spent in custody. He also received three years of probation requiring him to participate in a deradicalization program.

Becoming radicalized is when an individual challenges society’s mainstream ideas, gradually adopting extreme positions and ideologies. Becoming an extremist is a multi-factor process consisting of ideology and grievances. Ideology is a system of ideas that can form a political opinion. A grievance is when someone feels they have been wronged or receive unfair treatment.

Inspiration to take the leap often stems from personal issues and a charismatic leader promising a better life. Social media has made it easier for extremists to recruit new believers by allowing extremist ideologies to have a more widespread reach.

Fifty-eight per cent of Canadians are concerned about terrorism in Canada. That number also supports the government’s efforts to combat it, according to research by the Department of Justice. Canada’s terror threat level has been at medium since 2014 — meaning a violent act of terror could possibly occur. Since Quebec City’s mosque attack, the Danforth shooting and the revelation of spoiled plots authorities prevented, residents are more aware of what could happen because of extremism.

Given the statistics, one might wonder if it’s possible for an extremist to safely re-enter Canadian society after believing in toxic ideologies. With heightened fears of a home-grown attack, could Canadians really trust that an extremist has been de-radicalized?

The journey to extremism is a path Mubin Shaikh knows all too well. Although he works as an expert in deradicalization and, formerly, an undercover operative in Canadian Service Intelligence Service (CSIS), Shaikh’s story starts with the complete opposite narrative — he was once an extremist.

Mubin Shaikh
Mubin Shaikh is a deradicalized ex-extremist who did undercover work for the RCMP and CSIS. (Courtesy of Mubin Shaikh)

At 18-years-old, Shaikh threw a house party and was caught by his uncle. The shame and guilt were triggering, pushing him to search for other ways to feel validated and find himself.

“What the house party becomes [is] what is called the ‘trauma moment’,” he says. “That leads to a cognitive opening.”

The cognitive opening is when an individual acknowledges they have a problem and begins to consider how they can solve it. For Shaikh, the problem was the drama of being caught at his house party and the pent up tension that was already there.

The trauma moment varies from person to person. Whether it be the death of a loved one or near death experience, that moment can be anything so shocking to the person that it makes them more receptive to something they wouldn’t normally be.

In 1995, Shaikh decided to go on a journey to examine his cultural context. Coming from an Indo-Pakistani background, he travelled with a missionary group to “get religious.”

What came from this trip was a chance encounter with the Taliban. Their goal as an extremist group is to impose its warped perspective of Islamic ideology on Afghans. When Shaikh encountered members of the group and spent a few hours with them, he learned about their escalated views and internalized them. After four months of travel, he returned home, left his fundamentalist group and joined other like-minded, extreme individuals.

“I became very enamored by them,” Shaikh says. “And then, of course, intrigued and interested in the ideology all about being militant, to stand up for yourself.”

Shaikh didn’t know what the Taliban was prior to their chance encounter. Extremism was a new concept for him and their practices quickly became his reality. Engaging with other extremists in Canada became a normality in his life — until the twin towers were attacked on 9/11. It shocked him because the attack was a direct hit on non-combatants in the U.S., rather than Afghanistan where tensions actually existed.

“I knew that this was such a horrible incident, that it was gonna cause wars,” he says. “So it was a reality check.”

Shaikh then went on another trip to find himself but this time, it was a self-directed trip to deradicalize. He went to Syria to study Arabic history and relearn Islamic studies. He says he got his religion wrong on his previous journey and spent two years undoing what he started to believe in India and Pakistan.

His experience of deradicalization is different than most. While he had a natural awakening and chose to remove himself from radicalism, other extremists are ordered to do so when arrested.

In Nov. 2018, the government of Canada announced a $2.4 million investment over five years to develop programs meant to disengage individuals from participating in extremism. The program aims to work with at-risk people and tailor a plan for them to become deradicalized — which is what Hakimzadah will be participating in.

(Talia Boettinger/Ryersonian)

Shaikh says before this official investment was announced, the process of deradicalizing individuals was the same. Placing an official title on it has formalized what experts were already doing, which is attempting to reintegrate these people into society.

“It’s a specialist working with them long-term determining if they’re deradicalized or on the way [to becoming deradicalized],” says Shaikh. If the program was just a standard checklist and interview for the extremist to go through, he explains the individuals could definitely fake their way through it. Since the program revolves around years of relationship-building and trust, it’s a more reliable scale to determine someone’s status on the extremism spectrum.

A 2018 report by Public Safety Canada shows approximately 190 individuals with a Nexus to  Canada have travelled abroad to participate in extremist activities. These countries include Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan and more. The report also said an additional 60 individuals have travelled back to Canada after partaking in extremism abroad.

Deradicalizing a person doesn’t happen overnight. For Shaikh, he says it took two years for him to feel completely disengaged from the extreme beliefs he once associated with. There isn’t a set timeline for someone to become deradicalized. He says it involves long-term work and developing a lengthy relationship with a specialist who can determine if they have changed.

When Shaikh returned to Canada in 2004, he ended up working as an undercover operative for CSIS. His job was to collect intel on extreme individuals by engaging with them and pretending to be their friend. Shaik did a complete 180 — he went from being an active member of an extremist group, to working against them and reporting their acts to authorities.

“I did that for a couple years, until the case became a public prosecution with the RCMP,” he says. “And then I spent four years in court helping prosecute the case.”

Shaikh then had to figure out life after the case was closed. He chose to embrace his experience as a former extremist and undercover operative and got a masters degree in policing intelligence and counterterrorism.

The deradicalization program in Canada is still new, so its efficiency has not yet been evaluated. Shaikh’s contact with those working with extreme individuals in the program says it is working and promising results are expected.

Shaikh is an example of someone who changed for the better, not because he was forced to, but because he wanted to. He wants others to know there are ways for individuals to feel validated without extremism.

“You can change, we can help you,” he says. “The narrative of redemption is available…. To repair the person and their problematic ideology.”

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