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Once a recruiter, now a voice against jihad

Jesse Morton at George Washington University in Washington.  

In the four years that he ran the Revolution Muslim website out of his walk-up apartment in Brooklyn, Jesse Morton became one of the most prolific recruiters for al-Qaeda, luring numerous Americans to the group’s violent ideology.

“We were looking for the lions,” he said, explaining how he would often recruit right outside mosques, “and left them the lambs.”

Mr. Morton (now 37) is at the forefront of an experiment to counter the pull of groups like the IS and al-Qaeda. After a stint as an FBI informant and his release from prison last year, Mr. Morton has been hired as a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, where he will research the very ideology he once spread.

Although countries like Britain have for years been putting former extremists to work in think tanks to provide authentic voices against radical ideology, Morton is the first former jihadist to step into this public a role in the U.S.

That has not come without some anxiety for his new employer, said Lorenzo Vidino, director of the extremism programme at George Washington’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. Mr. Vidino met with Mr. Morton after his release in February 2015, beginning a year-long vetting process that involved interviewing seven law enforcement officials directly involved in his case.

“There was not a single dissenting voice,” Mr. Vidino said.

In an interview with The New York Times this month, after he was asked why anyone should believe he had truly changed, Mr. Morton insisted that he was trying to make amends.

“As many people as may have travelled, or may have committed criminal acts, because of my words, I hope that I can deter just as many,” he said. “I may never be able to repair the damage that I have done, but I think I can at least try.”

Finding a cause

Mr. Morton, who was born in Pennsylvania, said his early memories are of suffering abuse from his mother, and that she beat, scratched and bit her children for years.

At 16, he ran away and followed a Grateful Dead tour, subsisting by selling drugs outside concerts. His first brush with Islam came in 1999, when he and another pusher ran into an abandoned building to evade police, he said. As the officers were closing in, his partner instructed him to repeat a string of Arabic words. Only later did he realise he had recited the declaration of Muslim faith. When the police turned back, Mr. Morton (then 21) took it as a sign and converted.

Not long after, he was arrested, charged with selling narcotics and booked in a prison in Richmond, Virginia. An older Moroccan Muslim who shared the 40-man cell with Morton befriended him, and became his first Imam.

He gave Mr. Morton a Muslim name: Younus.

It was ‘us versus them’, and it appealed to Mr. Morton, especially when his teacher began sharing the prophecies of the destruction that was going to befall the U.S.

Extremist groups

In 2006, he graduated as valedictorian from Metropolitan College of New York. The next year, he enrolled at Columbia University, where he received a master’s degree in international studies.

Off campus, he gravitated to extremist groups. Soon Mr. Morton was introduced to jailed Jamaican extremist Abdullah al-Faisal, the mentor of one of the 2005 London bombers, and began writing to him.

Together, with the help of another convert in New York, the three decided to start Revolution Muslim, which went live during Morton’s Christmas break in 2007. — New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 10:18:40 AM |

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