The surprise announcement by a prominent Muslim leader here that he was an informant who helped authorities arrest 17 Muslims on terrorism charges has raised questions in the Muslim community over the ethics of informing versus a responsibility to stop violence.
Since outing himself as an informant who infiltrated and trained with the suspects, Mubin Shaikh has come under harsh criticism by some Toronto Muslims and sparked a debate about how far citizens should go in aiding police investigations, even as he has been hailed as a hero in the mainstream media.
The men, ranging in age from 15 to 43, were arrested last month after buying three tons of ammonium nitrate, a common bomb-making ingredient, and are alleged by police to have planned to blow up Toronto buildings and storm Canada's parliament. Then, earlier this month, Mr. Shaikh revealed himself to several media outlets as a mole who infiltrated the group at the request of the police.
"I wanted to prevent the loss of life," Shaikh told the Toronto Star newspaper. "I don't want Canadians to think that these [suspects] are what Muslims are. I don't believe in violence here. I wanted to help, and I'm as homegrown as it gets."
Before this, Shaikh was a well-known conservative leader in the Muslim community. He runs a shariah arbitration center and is a fierce advocate for Islamic law, in Canada.
"Whatever the source of his motivation, he did his duty as a Canadian citizen," The National Post newspaper wrote in an editorial. "And he has taught a lesson that others in the Muslim community would do well to heed."
But that view is not shared by many in Toronto's Muslim community. Some wonder whether Shaikh couldn't have dissuaded the terrorism suspects, most of whom are younger than he, from violence. Some accuse him of entrapping the suspects. Some question his motivation – Shaikh claims he was paid C$77,000 (US$68,000) for his work and is owed another C$300,000. Others simply scorn him as a betrayer.
"He was not just an informer in terms of ratting out certain people, he was actually fishing," says Aly Hindy, imam of the Salaheddin Islamic Centre, a mosque several of the suspects attended in Scarborough, an eastern suburb of Toronto. Mr. Hindy said Shaikh's deep knowledge of Islam – he studied for two years in Syria – helped him gain sway over the youngsters.
For his part, Shaikh told the CBC that the suspects had already chosen their path and needed no encouragement from him. After taking the unusual step of identifying himself as an informant, Shaikh has retreated from the public eye and could not be reached for comment.
The question of entrapment often arises in investigations involving undercover informants, experts say. Some of the 17 defendants' attorneys are claiming Shaikh instigated the terrorist plot rather than merely observed. In the US, informants in Muslim communities have been used often since the 9/11 attacks including in a Federal Bureau of Investigation case involving seven men accused of being Taliban sympathizers in Portland in 2002.
"If the police lose control of their informant, they lose control of the investigation," says Alan Young, a law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. "In organized crime, very often you need informants to penetrate the inner circle ... sometimes they're necessary and sometimes they're a disaster."
Some Toronto Muslims say they support the idea of reporting suspicious behavior to the authorities, but they draw the line at Shaikh's extensive undercover work.
"All citizens have an obligation to report a terrorist plot to the police should they find out about it. In fact, they have a duty to do so," Safiyyah Ally, a Toronto graduate student, wrote on her blog (www.safiyyah.ca/wordpress). But posing as a member of a group is different, she wrote.
"It becomes particularly problematic when a prominent member of a community spies on other individuals within the community," Ms. Ally wrote. "It wasn't right for someone of his stature to infiltrate himself within a group of youths with the intention of spying on them and secretly reporting their activities and ideas to the police."
Ally's posting touched off a storm of comments on her blog, ranging from predictions that Shaikh would burn in hell to calmer voices cautioning against a rush to judgment. Ally raised concerns about what the use of such informants might do to Toronto's Muslim community of 300,000.
"Our community is fragile enough as is, and our leaders are our moral anchor.... We cannot have communities wherein individuals are paranoid of each other and turned against one another," she wrote.
Hindy said he believes that would-be moles at his mosque already report to police when he makes controversial statements. "It looks like people are starting to be afraid of each other," says Hindy.
That distrust is a common side effect in a community where law enforcement frequently uses informants, says Alexandra Natapoff, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and an expert on the use of informants in the US drug war.
"There's a very corrosive effect in urban communities when the government makes snitching a central law enforcement tool," says Professor Natapoff. Informants can be a useful tool for criminal investigations, Natapoff says, but it's easy to slide into ethically dangerous territory.
"One of the things we should be worried about is that it will become more like the war on drugs, and law enforcement will become more dependent on informers, and informers will drive investigations rather than investigators picking their targets," says Natapoff.