Canada's police and intelligence agencies, through their use of paid Muslim informants, effectively have spies in virtually every major mosque in Toronto, according to well-connected members of the Muslim community.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service does not deny operating inside Muslim religious institutions, but insists that it hires informants to report on people, not places.
Those knowledgeable about mosques and the tactics of security services say it often amounts to the same thing.
"If they're following certain people, an imam for example, and that imam is spending a lot of time at the mosque, then [the informant]is also spending a lot of time at the mosque," even though they're not specifically instructed to, said Yahya Fadalla, a Hamilton-based imam. Besides his religious education, Mr. Fadalla has a doctorate in computer science with a specialization in cyberterrorism and information warfare.
Spying within the Muslim community appears to be far more widespread than previously thought. In fact, one prominent Toronto imam claims Fahim Ahmad, who has been characterized as a leader among the 17 individuals charged with terror-related offences in June, was himself once offered the opportunity to become a paid informant.
The issue has taken on greater prominence since Mubin Shaikh, a CSIS and RCMP informant, publicly disclosed he played an integral part in that investigation.
Mr. Shaikh said it's a given that intelligence authorities have many informants within the community.
"If [intelligence authorities]want to do anything, it has to be done through the Muslims," he said in an interview. "Of course they're going to have eyes and ears everywhere."
Aly Hindy - the controversial imam of the Salaheddin Islamic Centre in Scarborough - said he has long been monitored by spies. "I feel sorry for them, so sometimes I try to give them something [in my speeches]" he joked.
Mr. Fadalla said most informants aren't asked to infiltrate groups in the same way Mr. Shaikh did, but instead just keep their eyes and ears open for suspicious activity. It is unclear how much informants are paid for their work, although Mr. Hindy said some make upwards of $3,000 a month. Mr. Shaikh has claimed CSIS still owes him $300,000 for his work.
Some Muslims worry the quality of information provided to the spy agency may be compromised by an informant's desire for income. Others complain that tipoffs may be based less on fact than personal vendettas. "People know that if I don't like you, I can say you're involved in terror activity and they have to investigate," said Abdul Hai Patel, head of the Canadian Islamic Council of Imams.
Mr. Patel recalls an incident last year where a Muslim woman tried to divorce her husband. The proceedings turned acrimonious when the husband would not grant the woman a divorce - he called the RCMP to claim the woman's brother was involved in terrorist activity. The police found no evidence to back that claim.
"It has become a tool of revenge in the community," Mr. Patel said.
The use of informants within the community, although a long-standing tactic, became a particularly sensitive issue in the few weeks since Mr. Shaikh publicly disclosed he worked for the RCMP and CSIS. While some within the community applaud his work, others counter that his involvement may constitute entrapment.
After conducting numerous interviews to explain his role in the investigation, Mr. Shaikh has largely shied away from the news media spotlight in the past week. However, he has gone on-line to defend himself against accusations levelled by Muslim bloggers.
On one blog, where the author described Mr. Shaikh as an "ass-smootching kaffir [non-believer]rdquo; and urged him to prepare for hell, Mr. Shaikh replied: "I was at the forefront of defending Islam when not even the IMAMS had the guts to stand up.
"WHERE were all you dedicated Muslims when the Sharia issue was assailed?" he asked, referring to his previous support for the introduction of sharia law tribunals in Ontario. He also flatly denied setting up any of the 17 accused.
"I say in addition that IF it is revealed that I did in fact set them up, and thus help the kuffar [non-believers]against the Muslims and Islam - I will demand that the Muslims STONE ME and I will be guilty of Nifaaq and Kufr [hypocrisy and disbelief]"
Reached by phone, Mr. Shaikh said most of the responses he has received in the past week have been positive, including those from Muslim leaders in Toronto. Going on-line, he said, was his way of setting the record straight.
"When we all appear before the Lord, all these [allegations against me]will be on paper," he said.
CSIS will not comment on the details of any particular case. However, agency spokeswoman Barbara Campion said the agency does not hire informants to stake out locations. While it does often rely on "human sources," the term CSIS uses for informants, they are usually hired to provide information on individuals.
Mr. Patel said that while Muslims don't necessarily welcome the presence of informants in their communities, many have come to expect the practice. He also doubts other agents are likely to follow Mr. Shaikh's lead and reveal themselves to the public.
"CSIS, after hearing about one coming out, will tell the others to shut up," he said.