Arno Michaelis was deeply involved in the white power movement for a large part of his life, culminating in him being a founding member of the Northern Hammerskin. This group would evolve to become a part of the Hammerskin Nation, one of the largest racist skinhead organizations in the world. As part of his involvement in the Hammerskin Nation, he became the lead singer of the racist hate-metal band Centurion, selling over 20,000 CDs.
The seeds of this extremist trajectory were sown at home. Arno grew up in an alcoholic, emotionally abusive household. As a child and teenager, he often resorted to violence himself – he was the school bus bully, which escalated to vandalism in middle school. An adrenaline junkie, he was heavily involved in the punk rock scene, attracted to the aggression and violence built into its message. By the time he was 16, he himself was an alcoholic. His view of the world had narrowed, seeing it through a lens of hate. He proclaimed to hate the world, his life, the police, and his school.
Arno was drawn into the hate scene through punk rock music. As a hostile and angry teen, he soon discovered that swastikas were one of the most effective manners of angering people and disrupting society – a response that appealed to him. The white supremacist ideology presented him with an opportunity to become what he viewed as a noble warrior, fighting for white people and protecting them from the threat of genocide.
The environment of race-based hate groups is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lashing out with violence and anger directs anger and violence of the community back at the perpetrator, simultaneously reinforcing their belief that the world hates them and their paranoia that the world is unfairly targeting them. Identity was reinforced with racist music and literature, as well as by living in an environment rife with racial tension, a tension in part of their own making. He notes that “I wallowed in violence as a means of self-destruction and stimulation.”The constant dwelling on skin color, meant that it became the only source of identity Arno felt he had. He strove to protect it.
Arno’s deradicalization was prompted by the birth of his daughter and his responsibilities as a single dad at the age of 24. He had lost many friends, both to prison and death, and he did not want to risk the safety of his own daughter. As he withdrew, the ideology began to make less sense, as he no longer lived embroiled in a constant loop of hate propaganda. “I began to feel I had an identity of my own – and so for the first time I allowed myself to listen to whatever music I wanted to listen to, and watch whatever TV shows I wanted to watch – not just what had been approved by the white power movement.” He became involved in the rave scene, which portrayed a much different message than the skinhead scene, one of acceptance and forgiveness. He then stopped drinking and committed to remaining sober, which constituted a final break with the skinhead community and allowed him to process and work through his guilt.
Arno wrote about his experiences in his book My Life After Hate, and is a prolific public speaker. He currently works with the organization Serve2Unite, which works to involve young people as community peacemakers.
The life story of Mubin Shaikh is seemingly one of shifting identities and conflicting beliefs. However, his journey provides enormous insights into the process of radicalization and deradicalization.
Mubin Shaikh, author of Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18 - Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West, was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Of Indian heritage, he attended public school during the day, but his parents insisted he also attend a madrasa at night. But Shaikh was a normal teenager – he went to parties, chased girls, and eventually joined the Canadian Army Cadets. Nevertheless, Shaikh’s radicalization began in high school. One evening he held a party while his parents were out of town, and his uncles, who are very religious, caught him and reprimanded him. In response to his family’s criticism of his behavior, he believed he needed to become more “religious.” Going through an acute identity crisis at age 19, Mubin recommitted himself to Islam, the religion he was raised in. In this pursuit, he traveled to India and Pakistan in 1995 to study Islam. Shaikh had not been exposed to politics while growing up, and knew little about Middle Eastern politics before he left.
While in Quetta, Pakistan he had a chance encounter with individuals affiliated with the Taliban. He was struck by the image of bringing about change in the world through jihad. In his own words: “Imagine a young kid who comes from the West, has an identity crisis, has military experience, has a lot of energy and so on. A kid with an identity crisis, who feels shame and guilt and has some military background, shows up in a remote area in Pakistan, close to Afghanistan, and suddenly meets these people who were, to me, the embodiment of everything that I was seeking: militant, religious, and accepted by the people.”
Returning to Toronto, Shaikh became an active recruiter in a Salafi jihadist group, growing more political over time. However, Shaikh never himself mobilized to violence.
Initially, Shaikh rejoiced after 9/11, but the event nonetheless disturbed him. In his mind, jihad was fighting armed combatants, and there was something wrong about the piercing images of vast amounts of civilians being killed. He had Muslim friends calling him and stating that 9/11 did not reflect their beliefs, although many of his fellow jihadis supported the attack. And he had non-Muslim friends calling him to ask him, as a Muslim, if 9/11 truly reflected his personal and Muslim beliefs. He was forced to reevaluate them, and in doing so, he began questioning his commitment to this extremist mindset and decided to learn more about Islam.
Shaikh then travelled to Syria and studied under a Sufi Islamic scholar who challenged his interpretation of the Qur’an. The combination of a verse-by-verse study of the Qur’an, Islamic theology and Sufi spirituality, along with the realization that as a police state, Syria was itself discriminatory towards Indians like himself, made him turn away from extremist interpretations. Sufism presented an alternative identity and gave him a new perspective on life and religion.
Shaikh returned to Canada after his 2 years in Syria, volunteering as an undercover operative for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He reached out to the Canadian SIS after recognizing Momin Khawaja, the person arrested in connection with a fertilizer bomb plot in London, as someone he had attended madrassa with. After some successful projects with the CSIS, Shaikh joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as an Agent working on the well-known 2006 “Toronto 18” case. In this case, 18 would-be Jihadis had been plotting an attack in Toronto, as well as planning the abduction and beheading of the Prime Minister – all information Shaikh had gathered as a mole within the group. His help in the case led to the capture of the 18 suspected terrorists, which ultimately resulted in the conviction of 11 of them.
Currently, Shaikh is a public figure and an internationally recognized expert in issues regarding terrorism, radicalization and deradicalization. In 2011, he was awarded a Masters in Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He has served as an expert consultant for the United Nations Center for Counter Terrorism, worked with U.S. Special Operations Command, the Canadian Special Operation Forces and other security-related agencies as an independent subject matter expert. He also has a strong public presence, and has given talks at academic conferences, TV interviews, and is on Facebook and Twitter. He has given a Senate testimony on ISIS social media. He is currently pursuing a PhD in the Department of Psychological Sciences - Tactical Decision Making Research Group at the University of Liverpool.