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Huda Mukbil, an author and champion for reforms in the public sector who spent 18 years as a strategic advisor on National Security, in Ottawa, on April 25.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

Excerpted from Agent of Change: My Life Fighting Terrorists, Spies, and Institutional Racism by Huda Mukbil (McGill-Queen’s University Press, May, 2023)

The British Security Service, MI5, had sent out an urgent request for an intelligence officer matching my exact profile – someone with top-secret and signals intelligence security clearance and knowledge of East African languages and cultures. They wanted help with their investigations into what had become London’s 9/11: the 7 July and 21 July, 2005, terrorist attacks on the London transit system.

CSIS’s international languages team leader called me to eagerly confirm my availability and linguistic profile: “Oh my God, Huda, you may be asked to go to London. Wouldn’t that be something?”

I received my order to depart at a meeting with the deputy director general of Counter Intelligence, Jeff Yaworski. He was intimidating – a tall, heavy CSIS executive with glasses, a buttoned-down upper lip, and an inflexibly thick grey mustache. As the national decision maker for Counter Intelligence operations concerning Russia, China, North Korea and other countries of interest, he was privy to Canada’s most sensitive security operations.

“C’mon in, Huda,” he said in a deep voice.

I walked in, nervous and self-conscious for not having dressed more formally – I hadn’t known that I’d be called to his office. I sat. The expansive desk between us provided just the right distance for my comfort. His large paintings and memorabilia from Canadian intelligence, security partners and international security agencies left me breathless.

“Hi, Jeff,” I said solemnly. Silence followed. I was, by then, a seasoned intelligence officer and no longer the uninhibited, unreserved young woman who was quick to speak her heart and mind. I’d learned to demonstrate calm and that trust must be earned. I knew what Jeff wanted, and I’d already made my decision. Still, I wanted to show respect for the hierarchy and its decision-making culture. He’d have to ask.

“Huda, I spoke with David, our head-of-station in London. It appears MI5 has an urgent need for your specific linguistic skills and operational experience. The director, Jim Judd, has approved your deployment to that organization for an undetermined amount of time – upon your acceptance, of course. I called you in here today to ask if you’d be available to assist the British in their investigations into the terrorist attacks of the last weeks. There’s news today that they’ve managed to arrest some of the terrorists, but there’s a wider network and other emerging threats.”

If I seemed calm before, he now, surely, saw through it. My eagerness and purpose had got the best of me. I was officially being offered an opportunity of a lifetime – what a moment! I’d be joining MI5 on an international investigation, searching for the terrorists who’d committed this heinous act. For an intelligence officer worth their salt, there’s no higher calling.

Then suspicion clouded my elation. Was I back in the circle of the “trusted”? Was I again considered loyal, no longer an insider threat for being Muslim? Was I, once again, valuable as an intelligence officer and multilingual internationalist? I’d been trying, tiredly, for months to demonstrate my loyalty to queen and country. I’d been through unspeakable and painful isolation. I was seemingly being given a chance to prove that a Muslim could be faithful to her religion and Canada at the same time. With this assignment, I could demonstrate that I stood against those who called themselves Muslims but who worked to murder innocent people for illusory political gain. I’d get to show colleagues that my childhood spent in civil-war-torn countries had taught me to revere life, liberty and democracy. I’d get to prove to CSIS that there was value to diversity and that diversity translates to saved lives.

I told Jeff that I’d be honoured to go and was immediately available – I had my passport ready. “Great, Huda,” he replied. I could sense his relief as he leaned back. “We’ll issue you a special passport and prepare work orders for your departure. Please remain in communication with David in London. He’ll be your direct supervisor, and the staff at the Canadian High Commission will support your deployment by reserving your accommodation and covering your expenses.” All this was standard operating procedure for any overseas mission. He looked at me as though he had more to say.

An awkward silence welled between us. Is this my cue to thank him and walk away? I resisted the urge to shift uncomfortably in my seat. Then he asked, with hesitation, “Would you like a family member or significant other to accompany you to London?” Weird. Since when does the service cover expenses of accompanying family members? Are they offering me this because I’m a woman? Or are they trying to make up for how they hurt me? Do they think I need emotional support after all the suspicion and mistrust I’ve experienced? Sigh. These were questions that a white man would never have to answer. Stay optimistic, Huda. I told Jeff that I’d be travelling alone. I thanked him for the offer and walked back to my office.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) operates with absolute power and the iron shield of national security. For fifteen years, I worked within the orbit of that power fighting terrorists and spies. As a senior intelligence officer and a Black Muslim woman, I held a unique position as both an insider and a target of harassment at the service. The conflict between my reality working for a national security organization in a post-9/11 context and my identity as a practising Muslim meant that the high-profile status of my exit from CSIS was inevitable. In 2017, I launched a lawsuit with four of my colleagues that attracted international and Canadian media attention. At the time, one Global News headline read, “Canada’s Spy Agency Faces $35-Million Lawsuit over Allegations of Islamophobia, Homophobia.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the alleged harassment and discrimination within CSIS unacceptable, and the New Democratic Party (NDP) released a statement: “Liberals Must End the ‘Old Boys’ Club’ Culture of CSIS.”

Agent of Change is not a spy thriller. This memoir is my dedication and contribution to Canadian and international security and my fight for equity in the corridors of power at CSIS. Forcing the service to publicly acknowledge systemic racism was something no review body, public inquiry, or court was ever able to do. But I found a way to do it and followed through for my love of and duty to Canada. Now the ball is in their court to change and modernize.

Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are necessary parts of the equation for modern intelligence work, described as “mission-critical” by Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, a member of the United States House Intelligence Committee. Four British security agencies have also openly recognized the importance of EDI and have begun reckoning with their historic exclusion of racialized subjects. In Canada, a multicultural country, we have not yet begun our own reckoning, and the trends of misogyny, sexism and racism in our military, federal, provincial and municipal police forces are pervasive and very worrisome realities.

It was in 2002, after a rigorous and lengthy security screening process, that I joined Canada’s spy service as an intelligence officer. In so doing, I became a member of an exclusive and elitist organization that demanded absolute loyalty in exchange for exposure to the inner workings of Canada’s security and intelligence community. I signed on knowing that I’d have to lead a secret life. My friends, neighbours and acquaintances couldn’t know what I did for a living.

I understood that the service would scrutinize my activities, associations, financial records and personal secrets and that CSIS would test my reliability and loyalty with filmed polygraphs. I accepted this transparency as necessary to belong to an organization that fought spies, terrorists and traitors. I also understood that as a CSIS officer, I could become a target of a foreign counterintelligence agency or a terrorist group.

Going public with my story was never my intention nor something I ever thought I’d have to do. From day one, I counted on CSIS to protect me and my family as I progressed at my job. I was convinced that being a spy and working toward the CSIS mission were more significant and meaningful than anything I could fathom – and they were. The post-9/11 world needed CSIS, and I felt that it needed me, too. I was young, educated, confident, unattached and multilingual, and I was desperate to belong – my fatal flaw. Back then, security and intelligence organizations were shifting their focus, resources and might to fight Islamist extremism. I had no loyalty to any country besides Canada, and I’d lived in a Muslim-majority country for many years. I was what every international and national security and federal law enforcement agency wanted and needed.

For more than fifteen years, along with other dedicated, brilliant colleagues, I safeguarded Canada and the public from internal and external threats. During the first four years of my service, I was the only intelligence officer in the Counter Terrorism branch at headquarters who spoke Arabic. This positioned me in the front seat of CSIS operations, decision making and the egos of the men who ran the organization. As an officer, I analyzed and advanced investigations that tracked down Canadians supposedly linked to Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups. Later, in my counterproliferation work, I helped prevent countries like Iran from weaponizing. I worked as a liaison officer for CSIS at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) – equivalent to the American National Security Agency – and the Integrated Terrorist Assessment Centre (which is equivalent to the Department of Homeland Security).

As an investigator at CSIS’s Toronto office, I was at the heart of some of the service’s most sensitive investigations. I ran and led Counter Terrorism source operations and contributed to CSIS’s community outreach efforts. I co-ordinated with other national security and law enforcement agencies. I travelled overseas to represent the service and Canada at allied security intelligence agencies – the CIA, the FBI, MI5 and others. I’m most proud of my work at MI5, with whom I investigated and helped bring to justice the terrorists involved in the 7/7 and 21/7 London attacks.

My career as a CSIS spy was exhilarating and unique. I was passionate about my work, which was enticing, overwhelming and addictive. This work will always be a part of who I am. Once you’ve trained and lived as an intelligence officer, the job becomes part of your identity. But as a racialized woman, my journey had challenges that nearly destroyed me, and sadly, my experience as the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman intelligence officer in the service came to a crashing end in December, 2017.

After many months of deliberations with CSIS’s internal grievance mechanisms, I and four colleagues filed a civil lawsuit for harassment and discrimination against CSIS. In the subsequent court proceedings, I was identified as Bahira, a pseudonym, as CSIS directed. I served my country with pride until I could no longer do so, not through any fault of my own but because sexism, racism and discrimination made it impossible for me to get my work done. Facing this fact was the most painful moment of my life.

Going public with my story, even under a pseudonym, was almost as soul-crushing. It ran counter to the instincts CSIS had cultivated in me. I’d taken a vow of secrecy when I joined CSIS to serve my country from the shadows with countless others who pledged the same. I had trained, worked and lived to not be noticed. After we filed the lawsuit, anxiety plagued me: What if the media figures out who I am? What if my name is published? Is my family safe? What about the sensitive operations I worked on? What if dangerous people come after me?

No intelligence officer, or human being for that matter, should ever have to go through the bullying and harassment I did. At CSIS, I faced intimidation, isolation, exclusion, unfair scrutiny, a toxic work environment, and gender, racial and religious discrimination. I was prevented from advancing my career by systemic racism and barriers meant to deny me opportunities. I often felt alone in my struggle. It took me many years to learn and acknowledge that CSIS was perpetuating systemic biases against women, Muslims, racialized minorities, Indigenous peoples and LGBTQ2S+ people. I had tried to be the voice of reform on the inside, speaking out against bias and Bill 59, which gave more police-like power to CSIS.

For many years, I watched as politics, race and biases were rendered invisible in the operations and science of intelligence work. Publicly, discrimination was, and still is, evident in the way politicians demand answers, cough up resources, and change laws to increase surveillance powers only when the threat is from racialized groups. This discrimination is readily accepted and left unquestioned by most Canadian communities within and outside of the political sphere. Ultimately, working for the service unveiled to me the discriminatory ways in which national security providers perceive and prioritize threats.

When a Canadian Human Rights Commission employment audit report later revealed that visible minorities occupied 0 per cent of managerial roles and were under-represented in professional CSIS positions, I became convinced, beyond any doubt, that my experience of systemic racism was one of many. It also underscored to me the importance of recognizing that change would have to be pushed from outside of the organization. Only by going public with colleagues whose commitments and contributions to national security equalled mine did I feel protected.

Sharing my story is a natural part of my service, an extension of my mission to stand up for Canada’s values of democracy, equality, justice and freedom – as one of the few women of colour and the first veiled Muslim woman at CSIS, it’s my way of shining a necessary light on the systemic barriers that persecuted minorities face within the organization. These barriers threaten our national security efforts by preventing talented people of diverse backgrounds from serving their country. They also foster mistrust in government and in democracy. Systemic racism is not limited to CSIS but is a persistent challenge across national security in Canada.

Today, I am somewhat encouraged by the conversation we’re having in Canada about the need for -based reforms in the intelligence community. However, while the American intelligence community is making positive equity-based changes, including open annual public hearings on diversity and inclusion, Canada has not yet begun to address the gender, race and religious biases that prevail in our intelligence community. A 2019 report released by the National Security Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) indicates that the recruitment and retention of racialized Canadians is a challenge, and sadly, at the time of the report’s publication, the numbers were continuing to decrease.

The NSICOP report is also critical of widespread harassment, violence and discrimination, which it states are unacceptably high, with limited accountability for perpetrators. I believe that works, like my memoir, that seek to inform and engage the public are necessary to force positive change in the intelligence community. Stories linger in and shape our consciousness, providing context that is often missing from media reports, vetted surgical inquiries and other findings. My journey was not one I had planned to take, but it was inevitable and humbling, exposing me to gaps in the intelligence community that I hope will start to be filled once my story and others like mine are shared.

Huda Mukbil is a mother, a public speaker on diversity and a champion for reforms in the public sector. She spent eighteen years as a strategic adviser on National Security. She lives in Ottawa.

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