From Al-Qaeda recruiter to a voice against terror

Once committed to destroying the world, Jesse Morton now realises that the international order needs to be protected

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.

The men and women he inspired through his online posts and tutorials were accused of plots that included flying a remote-controlled plane strapped with explosives into the Pentagon and trying to kill a Swedish cartoonist who satirised the Prophet Muhammad.

One of his collaborators was killed in a drone strike in Yemen, where he had joined Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Several are now fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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

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

REELING IN RECRUITS

Once you see that they are logging in consistently, you don't really need to take them all the way. What you have to do is frame their personal grievance, making them think that they can contribute to a broader cause. And you do that through the ideology because, believe it or not, Islam can be framed in a way that is incredibly revolutionary.

JESSE MORTON, on how his Revolution Muslim website brought in a ready pool of recruits.

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 militant to step into this public role in the United States.

That has not come without some anxiety for his new employer, said Dr Lorenzo Vidino, director of the extremism programme at George Washington's Centre for Cyber and Homeland Security. Dr Vidino met Morton after his release in February last year, beginning a yearlong vetting process that involved interviewing seven law-enforcement officials directly involved in his case. "There was not a single dissenting voice," Dr Vidino said.

In an interview with The New York Times last month, after he was asked why anyone should believe he had truly changed, Morton insisted 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

Asked when he had first turned towards extremism, he put out his hand and held it a foot off the floor: "When I was about this high."

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

When he couldn't take it any more, he confided in a guidance counsellor. The school called in his mother, who he said denied abusing him and then took him home and beat him.

"It was not just my dysfunctional family that I couldn't trust, it was society at large," he said. "That's where the whole us-versus-them personality comes in, with the perception that society - American society - is not protecting me."

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, 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 him befriended him, and became his first imam.

He gave Morton a Muslim name: Younus, after a prophet who was swallowed by a whale and from inside its stomach called others to Islam. "You are in the belly of the beast right now," the man told him.

It was us versus them, and it appealed to him, especially when his teacher began sharing the prophecies of the destruction that was going to befall the US. He quoted scripture predicting that an Islamic state would be established when the black flag was raised over Afghanistan.

"This is perfect for me, because now the world is black and white," Morton said. "And I am immediately motivated to contribute to this cause. I get out, and I completely transform my life."

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 groups sporting the black flag, first through the Islamic Thinkers Society, an offshoot of the British group run by Anjem Choudary, who was charged with using online lectures to incite support for ISIS and convicted last month.

Soon, 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.

The website courted controversy, and was used to bring in those who were flirting with extremism. On Fridays, Morton stood outside mosques in New York, giving speeches criticising the "soft Islam" preached inside. Videos of the confrontations would be featured on the site next to audio recordings from Osama bin Laden. The site branched out with a YouTube channel.

"Revolution Muslim was a bug light, which attracted aspiring jihadists with their message," said Mr Mitch Silber, former director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department, whose team invested heavily in tracking Morton's online activities.

RECRUITMENT STRATEGY

The Revolution Muslim website brought in a ready pool of recruits. "Once you see that they are logging in consistently, you don't really need to take them all the way," Morton said.

"What you have to do is frame their personal grievance," he added, "making them think that they can contribute to a broader cause. And you do that through the ideology because, believe it or not, Islam can be framed in a way that is incredibly revolutionary."

He said that instilling an unbendingly literal brand of Islam was critical. The first concept is that God is the sole lawgiver. "Then you use that principle to say that all the Muslim rulers, because they don't implement Shariah law in its entirety, they are not Muslim at all, so we can rebel against them."

Next, he taught recruits that their allegiance needed to be solely to fellow Muslims, seeking to cut them off from friends and family.

Once those principles were embedded, Morton said, "you could essentially do anything you wanted with them."

Revolution Muslim became a relay station for Al-Qaeda's broader message. In its orbit, you could find many of the US citizens who either attempted to join the group or else plotted murder in its name.

One follower of the group's YouTube channel was the Pennsylvanian convert Colleen LaRose, known online as "Jihad Jane". She was charged in 2010 with plotting to murder a Swedish cartoonist, prompting Al-Qaeda's leading propagandist, Anwar al-Awlaki, to declare that "jihad is becoming as American as apple pie".

A recruit from Massachusetts was accused of planning to blow up a shopping mall.

Bryant Vinas, a Long Island convert who had interacted with Morton, went as far as travelling to the Waziristan region of Pakistan, where he began preparing an attack on the Long Island Rail Road before he was arrested.

All the while, Morton was calibrating how far he could go, and his associate consulted a lawyer to study the outer limits of free speech.

"And we would walk right up to the line," he said.

The line was finally crossed on April 15, 2010, when Zachary Adam Chesser, a volatile, 20-year-old associate of Morton's, uploaded the home addresses of the creators of the cartoon show South Park after an episode mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

When Chesser was arrested while trying to board an international flight on his way to join the Al-Shabab militant group in Somalia, Morton fled to Morocco. A year later, he too was arrested and initially held in a Moroccan prison.

The Americans came for him on Oct 27, 2011. He recounted being driven to a deserted airport, where he clutched his Quran as a team of US agents handcuffed, shackled and blindfolded him. Before placing earphones over his ears, they took away his Quran.

He was surprised when one of the agents removed the blindfold midflight and handed him back the holy book. It was the first of several gestures that he said would touch him, a step along what he described as a long, gradual path out of radicalisation.

Back in the US, he awaited sentencing in solitary confinement, where a guard broke the rules and allowed him to leave his cell and spend the duration of her shift in the library. He said the first book he had grabbed was Volume 35 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Great Books Of The Western World. Over the next weeks, he lost himself in the writings of the Enlightenment, starting with John Locke's 1689 "Letter Concerning Toleration". The philosopher argued that faith could not be bought through violence, prompting Morton to reflect on how his captors had handed him back his Quran.

At night, he said, he would dream he was sitting across from Osama bin Laden. "I'm asking him questions: 'Am I becoming a disbeliever? Am I going to hell?'" Morton said. "He doesn't talk. He has nothing to say."

SHIFTING SIDES

It was in the prison library that a guard pulled Morton aside and led him into a room where two FBI agents were waiting. They had logged into his former e-mail account and tracked his former recruits, several of whom had joined ISIS. Now they wanted him to become an informant. Wrestling with the idea, and increasingly disillusioned with fundamentalism, he eventually agreed.

On a hot summer day two years ago, soon after ISIS had declared its caliphate, Morton received a letter from Syria. It was from one of his former students, who enthusiastically described how he had spent the morning swimming in the Tigris, just after ISIS had routed the Iraqi military in Mosul and hung the decapitated heads of enemies from a fence.

Instead of sharing his recruit's excitement, Morton threw up inside his cell.

"This is a person who was my student, literally called me with every single question he had, and I said, 'Go to Syria'," he recalled. "It's like Frankenstein. I didn't create it, but I certainly contributed to it."

Morton continued working undercover until he was outed as an informant by The Washington Post. By then, the judge had reduced his 11-year sentence to three years and nine months. He walked out on Feb 27 last year.

He now lives in Virginia, and the terms of his release prevent him from travelling outside the greater District of Columbia area. On Monday, when classes resumed at George Washington University, Morton was to be there too, in his role as a researcher.

Still, he said, at night he is gripped by fear.

The extremists he turned his back on could try to harm him - ISIS considers spying a form of apostasy, punishable by death. Mostly, though, he worries about the ideas he unleashed on the world.

"I'm scared - not because I think I'll go back, but because of what's coming," he said.

"I was so committed to destroying the world that I lived in, and now, for rational reasons, I realise that international order needs to be protected."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline 'From Al-Qaeda recruiter to a voice against terror'. Print Edition | Subscribe