Watching Mubin and Moe discuss the extremist ideology that is luring young Muslims into far-flung conflicts or pushing them to violence at home is like viewing a tennis match on fast forward.
An idea is lobbed, slammed back and rallied for a bit, and then the point is made.
Although they speak in low tones, their enthusiasm and waving hands are drawing the curiosity of other diners in the downtown Toronto café.
Most Canadians know Mubin Shaikh, the outspoken police insider who infiltrated a group plotting in 2006 to blow up Toronto’s downtown.
Fewer would know Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, or Moe, a 37-year-old, Somalia-born Canadian who has experienced the frontlines of Mogadishu’s relentless war.
They didn’t know each other until recently. Nor did they know Kamran Bokhari, a Pakistan-born, U.S.-raised and -educated analyst with an American private sector intelligence firm whose Mississauga home is so elegantly decorated by his wife that a television design show will feature it this fall.
This trio makes up the Canadian delegation attending an unconventional international gathering in Dublin, Ireland starting on Sunday.
The Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), to be held over three days in a country that is no stranger to sectarian conflict, is the coming-out party for Google Ideas, a new “think tank/do tank” led by former U.S. State Department adviser Jared Cohen.
Co-sponsored by the Council of Foreign Relations and the Tribeca Film Festival, the summit has been designed to probe why young people turn to violent extremism.
Organizers have spent six months convincing as many as 90 “formers” — past members of violent groups ranging from neo-Nazis to Islamic extremists to Latin American street gangs — to come together with a hodgepodge of academics and analysts from around the world.
They will join the “survivors” — victims of violence or terrorist attacks. This includes Canadian Amanda Lindhout, who was kidnapped alongside a photographer in August 2008 in Somalia and held in harrowing conditions for 15 months. The aspiring freelance journalist and Australian Nigel Brennan were finally released after a reported $600,000 ransom was paid.
Cohen said in an interview with the Toronto Star this week that he hopes for an “intellectual collision” to help identify the root causes of radicalization.
“I wouldn’t have brought all these people together if I didn’t believe there was a compelling hypothesis,” said Cohen, who worked under both the Bush and Obama administration.
The three Canadians are eager to share their varied experiences and offer advice, but as they departed on Saturday night they also had their own question — why did they have to travel overseas to be heard?
Mohamed says he is frustrated by what he regards as Canadian apathy over the problem of at-risk youths. He says he decided to go public with his story last year in the National Post in the hope of helping to stop Somali youths from being recruited to Mogadishu.
Authorities believe as many as 20 young Somalis have been lured from Canada to join the Shabab, which was designated a terrorist organization in Canada last year. Two Toronto women, one of whom was attending university and whose departure shocked her family, left in February. Sources in Somalia’s transitional government told the Star one is now believed to be training at a Shabab camp.
Mohamed, who has political science degree from Brock University and studied law in Australia, works as a Rexdale security guard and struggles to pay rent. He said the media attention about his story prompted a phone call from a government official, but his later attempts to follow up with Canada’s Public Safety Department went nowhere.
Meanwhile, NATO had tapped him for advice and he was flown to bases in the U.K. and Germany to talk about Somalia’s piracy and insurgency.
Bokhari is not looking for work — he is too busy with his job at STRATFOR, a Texas-based global intelligence company, and finishing his book on radical Islamic thought. But Bokhari feels passionate about Canada and says he too has reached out to various high-level political connections suggesting that more needs to be done.
“I hear back, ‘Yes we need to do something,’ ” the 42-year-old said in an interview at his home this week. “Then there’s nothing. No follow through.”
Bokhari believes there is general reluctance in Canada, both within Muslim communities and at the federal government level, to talk openly about the problem.
“Muslim communities have failed to adopt such measures because they lack a counter-terrorism ethic,” he wrote in a 2006 paper for the Muslim Public Affairs Journal. “Part of this can be explained as a function of their current siege mentality, where the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dialectic. But on the other hand, a lot of this has to do with many Muslims’ inability to distinguish between sentiments of Muslim solidarity and the dire need to view Muslim terrorists as enemies of the community.”
Shaikh’s grievances have been more public. After the Toronto 18 case, he says, he wasn’t prepared for the backlash from many Muslims who regarded him as a traitor. He was also frustrated by what he says is a lack of support from the RCMP, his former employer. Last month, a document released through WikiLeaks revealed that Shaikh had been place on a U.S. no-fly list for “terrorist-related activity,” alongside the names of the convicted terrorists his work had helped lock up. Shaikh says CSIS is looking into correcting it.
It’s an example of why there is mistrust between Muslim communities and authorities here, Shaikh argues. “In effect, what they’re telling the community is swim out to reach the bridge. That’s not how you build bridges.”
He, too, wants to see a more comprehensive program developed by Muslim leaders, with government backing. “There’s this idea that we’re going to arrest and spy this problem away,” said Shaikh. “And if you think that’s what going’s to happen, I have news for you: it doesn’t work like that.”
On Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a new, five-year program to combat terrorism while commemorating the 26th anniversary of the Air India bombing. The $10-million initiative will focus on anti-terrorism research and conferences, a press release stated.
It’s certainly not the first attempt to address the problem in the 10 years since 9/11. Check any of the government’s websites that deal with security issues, and there are details on various initiatives launched by Public Safety, the RCMP and Canada’s spy and border services.
The RCMP’s policy is one of cooperation, spokesperson Sgt. Greg Cox stressed in an email to the Star. Success is “measured not just by how many incidents are prevented, but in the way violent extremism is countered in our communities before it is too late.”
But during more than a dozen interviews over the past month with members of both Canada’s Muslim communities and government officials, many said the gap between the community and security agencies has narrowed only slightly in the decade since 9/11. Some pointed to a cultural disconnect and the Conservative government’s emphasis on law enforcement rather than addressing the problem before it becomes one.
Solutions tend to be Ottawa-directed, rather than community-initiated with government support, many said.
Others point to a climate of distrust and how good intentions are sometimes hampered by a lack of coordination among government departments, or by diplomatic red tape.
Take, for instance, the Somali Canadian National Council’s disappointment this month when it tried to bring Ugas Abdirahman, considered royalty in Central Somali and an influential speaker, to a local conference on radicalization and Somalia’s conflict.
Based in Nairobi, he travels often to speak, and a letter of support from Etobicoke North MP Kirsty Duncan was included in his visa application.
But Canada’s High Commission in Nairobi denied entry on the grounds that Abdirahman’s travel history and “purpose of visit” did not convince officials that he would leave Canada at the end of his trip. “He has everything back in Nairobi,” said Abdi Hashised, executive director of the Somali Canadian National Council. “He is an important leader and elders would be listening to him and they could bring the message to the youth. Our credibility is on the line right now with this. They’re disrespecting him and us, the whole Somali community.”
Cohen says this problem — a disconnect between government agencies and individuals or communities — is not unique to Canada and is one of the issues he hopes the Dublin summit will address. “I think what the Canadian (delegates) may find is that there are people around the world who have had similar experiences to them.”
‘Change from within’ is a message often repeated by those who work in the field of de-radicalization or counter-extremism in Canada’s Muslim communities. “If you do it from outside it’s always going to be seen as a foreign imposition — ‘Oh, they’re going to change my religion for me,’ ” Bokhari said.
He described it thus recently in one of his papers: “What needs to be done is to alter the settings of the Muslims’ viewfinder so that they can appreciate alternative discourses without feeling that they are being led away from Islam.”
Bokhari is a long way from the days when, as a student in New York in the early 1990s, he “flirted with Islamism.”
“I was at the City College of New York when I bumped into Hizb-ul-Tahrir (HT),” he said of the days when he attended lectures by members of the now outlawed group.
Then, as an undergrad student in Missouri, he briefly became interested in the newly created, British-based Al Muhajiroun, which was essentially an offshoot of HT. Identified at one point as the group’s “spokesperson,” he received one media inquiry before he drifted away from the group in 1998, when their message became increasingly violent and anti-American.
“One journalist called me up and said, ‘I want to meet bin Laden,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘He’s not here in Springfield, Mo.’ ”
But that brief glimpse at the group’s recruiting methods and his understanding of youthful curiosity has helped inform his years of research into the problem since.
Mohamed’s and Shaikh’s experiences are more recent, and both say the key lies in countering the jihadi narrative and perception that the “War on Terror” was essentially a “War on Islam” declared after 9/11.
“Either we leave it and it further devolves into us-versus-them mentality or we actually do something about it,” said Shaikh. “And that involves government really reaching out to communities.”
Mohamed has been on both sides of the war in Somalia. He hails from a politically connected family and immigrated to Canada as a teenager to live with his aunt, after his mother had died in a house fire. He grew up in Rexdale with Somali singing sensation K’Naan. “I used to walk him to school,” he laughed.
In 2004, Mohamed returned to Africa to campaign for his cousin, Hussein Aidid, who was running for president. Aidid lost the election but became deputy prime minister, and Mohamed stayed to serve as his political secretary.
But three years later, when Ethiopian troops backed the unpopular transitional government to oust an Islamic insurgency — largely regarded now as a foreign policy blunder with disastrous consequences — Mohamed switched sides to join the Shabab.
When Ethiopian troops withdrew in 2009, Mohamed left Somalia too. Shortly after, the Shabab pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.
Mohamed is hoping to make contacts in Dublin who can help him kick-start programs in his own community, since he says he has received greater cooperation from international authorities.
“They know,” he said, “that we need people who can walk the walk and talk the talk.”