"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.