How does someone who traces his family lineage to Plymouth Rock, become the most prolific Al-Qaeda recruiter in history? And then, how does he come back from it?
It’s a story that’s as riveting as it is insightful; made all the more unbelievable by the fact that it actually happened.
This week, I spoke with Jesse Morton— the man who founded the extremist and propagandist organization Revolution Muslim. At its height, officials say that at least half of all of the terror plots disrupted in the English-speaking world were connected to Jesse and his organization. He tells me how he got there, why he did it, and how he’s using those same tools now toward positive ends.
He joined me by phone from Jordan.
Five Takeaways from my Conversation with Jesse
What does it mean to be “radicalized”?
“So when we look at radicals, they’re people who have particular grievances against whatever order— it might be a nationstate, a transnational institution, the European Union or something along those lines— they have a perception of the world that it is unjust and it needs to be torn down and restructured in a different manner.”
“The ends justifying the means is incredibly crucial to distinguishing between radicalization as an academic and in the current context.” Jesse tells the story of how when he was a “jihadist, propagandist, and recruiter” he would oftentimes conflate the struggle of Al-Qaeda to the United States today, with the United States’s struggle against the British in the Revolutionary War. He says that because he saw things without nuance, he failed to see the fact that the Founding Fathers never called for people in England to rise up and kill civilians to advance their cause. All he saw was the American’s engaging in violence to fight the Empire.
And so, the logic of using “violent means to justify a non-violent end” is a demarcating factor between someone who is frustrated and someone who is susceptible to violent extremism.
How does radicalization become violent extremism?
Jesse stresses the importance of trauma in making someone vulnerable to radicalization.
“What we’re learning more and more in situations where radicalization leads to violent extremism is that there’s oftentimes a traumatized individual that is lured by a broader movement that synthesizes or merges their identity with that of the movement, because they don’t have an ability to function on their own and they need that sense of community. There are different movements and different ideologies, and the fascinating thing is that when you dissect and pick them apart, they’re relatively the same.
One of the best ways to display that is with regards to the way that we see this relationship between jihadism and far right wing extremism, currently. So, we have the jihadists that proclaim the United States is a crusader force allied with the Zionists controlling Israel, and they have declared war with the Muslims at large. It’s the same narrative that’s utilized by far right wing extremists. They use the term “Zionist Occupied Government” that American foreign policy is controlled by Zionists. The far right wing extremists despise globalization, they despise the “New World Order” in the same way that jihadists do. They all call to a focused task: Isis calls to its caliphate, the White Nationalists call to an era when there was slavery and there was no such thing as having to appease liberal or democratic norms— back to an era of authoritarianism and conquest of the strong and the powerful. It’s very very similar. They’re not that different when you look at the core fundamentals.”
TL:DR (Too long; didn’t read): Whether or not someone who might be radicalized actually engages in violent extremism, has a lot to do with the norms and expectations of the movement (network) they’re part of.
What was the key to Jesse’s de-radicalization?
Jesse is a case study in radicalization. He was severely mentally, physically, and emotionally abused by his mother growing up, and ran away from home when he was 16. He joined a group of hippies and toured with the Grateful Dead for 3 years, soaking up “anything that would give me some sort of belonging and stability.” He is what the intelligence community calls a “seeker.” During a stint in jail, Jesse read The Autobiography of Malcom X. The book resonated with him, and he converted to Islam. During a separate stay in jail, he met a man who was a fighter for the Afghan Taliban during the Soviet Jihad. This man taught him how to be a real Muslim, and gave him a new name: Younus Abdullah Muhammed. A year later, 9/11 happened and Jesse interpreted it as the beginning of the war between Muslims and the West.
Soon, Jesse founded Revolution Muslim—an organization that over the next few years, would become the number one tool for recruiting to the radical Islamist cause in the world. After threatening the lives of the creators of South Park, Jesse (still living as Younus Abdullah Muhammed) fled to Morocco where he was arrested in 2011.
There were a number of factors that came together to help Jesse along his journey to de-radicalization.
Age: He was now in his early 30s.
Separation from the jihadi network: By being forced to lay low in Morocco, Jesse didn’t have the same type of regular exposure to other jihadists like when he was living in America.
Exposure to young people: The Arab Spring happened while Jesse was in Morocco. He talks about the conversations he had with the young people he was tutoring, and was able to understand what they wanted from life, and how his work might be misguided.
Meeting an idol: While imprisoned in Morocco, Jesse met a Jihadi whose speeches he used to translate. The man counseled him to think about “throwing his life away for this cause.”
Empathy, Humanity, Dignity, and Respect: After Jesse’s arrest, a female FBI agent began working with him. She treated him with dignity, respect, and humanity. In fact, Jesse says that she “re-humanized” him. Over time, they established a sort of professional relationship, in which he became an informant for the FBI. Because of his cooperation, prosecutors advocated for a reduction in his original 11.5 year sentence, which was granted.
Therapy: Jesse has gone to hundreds of hours of therapy to better understand his trauma and the role it plays in his life.
Networks are the key to combating extremist ideology and influencing behavior
Jesse, along with Mitch Silber, the former Director of Intelligence Analysis at the NYPD, have co-founded Parallel Networks— an organization that establishes a space for community among former extremists by providing the same meaning, significance, and purpose offered by recruiters for violent extremism, but with a positive end goal.
“Parallel Network is based upon the philosophy that we live in a world of networks. And it is from our network that we synthesize and create our individual identities— our sort of ‘social self’. And it is that ‘social self’ that can become part of a collective consciousness depending upon what network we belong to. And so we’re trying to build a parallel network that parallels the current situation we have in our world— one of polarization, one of hate, one of extremism, and resentment of the other. And our problem that we face, and that we perceive as the root cause for the perpetuation of this age of extremism, is the fact that in a polarized society we always look at the other as the enemy. But as Einstein said, you can’t address a problem at the level of consciousness that created it.
And one thing that we’ve realized from working with extremists is that at the end of the day, it’s all about idenity and it’s all about finding a purpose, meaning, significance, camaraderie, and community. And the same way I can tell an individual to go blow himself up for the cause, I can tell a young kid ‘sacrifice yourself and do something with your life that is incredibly useful and rewarding, but that also gives you a community to belong to.”
What we can do right now to combat the trends of division in our own country
“We need to understand that when we look at the other, we have to have empathy. We’re divided. We’re united on somethings, but Americans are divided. We’re black and white. Democracies don’t work under black and white perspectives. When you start to fight and argue in an “us and them” realm, you cannot have an educated citizenry that can make democracies flourish. We have to elevate our consciousness. We have to talk to people that we disagree with. So if I’m a liberal or democratic, I have to reach out to people on the Republican aisle— be able to put myself in their shoes. Listen. Not try to instruct or preach. And we have to come up with ways where just in the same ways Evangelical Christians have never met Muslims, and therefore they hate Muslims until they meet, we have to do the same with our politics right now. We have to talk. We have to promote the idea of engagement with the other. Communicate with people who might seem to be your enemy. Open up safe spaces, where people can share how they really feel, so we can bridge some of those divides.”
Additional Information, Resources, and Links
Parallel Networks: http://www.pnetworks.org/
Light Upon Light: http://www.LightUponLight.online
VIDEO: Combating Violent Extremism
VIDEO: The Unmaking of an Extremist
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