America grapples with return of reformed terrorists


Former militant calls for rehabilitation plans, with at least 61 due for release in next 5 years

Convicted Islamist militant Jesse Morton thought he had found a way to atone for his sins: first, as a government informant, and later, as a prominent advocate against extremism, after he was released from jail in March 2015.

But the former Al-Qaeda recruiter and propagandist, who was one of the first Americans to go home with a terrorism-related conviction, found his path back into society rocky.

On top of having a hard time finding work and developing relationships due to the stigma of having been a terrorist, Mr Morton said telling his life story to national newspapers in an effort to speak out against extremism took its toll, causing him to relive the trauma of the childhood abuse he suffered.

He could not qualify for counselling for his mental health issues, as his state's health subsidies under the Medicaid programme covered only contraception, he said.

Mr Morton, who has bipolar disorder, ended up having a manic episode and was arrested on drug and prostitution charges, serving three months in jail last year for violating the terms of his parole.

The 39-year-old is now on the mend, and uses his experience to call for targeted rehabilitation programmes for incarcerated terrorists.

He argues that America is unprepared for the convicted terrorists who are returning home - at least 61 in the next five years - after they have served their prison sentences.

"If you remove a radical ideology, what happens is, the same issues that drove you into it in the first place are still prevalent and they still persist. I thought that removing the idea removes the problem, but it goes deeper," said Mr Morton, who went by the name Younus Abdullah Muhammad.


If you remove a radical ideology, what happens is, the same issues that drove you into it in the first place are still prevalent and they still persist. I thought that removing the idea removes the problem, but it goes deeper.


"I ended up relapsing on drugs. Other people will come home with even greater complications, and they may ask themselves what they have to live for. The question becomes whether or not they return to engage with the terrorist network they once belonged to."

Mr Morton co-founded a Virginia-based consultancy named Parallel Networks, which focuses on rehabilitating terrorists, and, in a twist of fate, now works with the man who helped hunt him down: former New York Police Department intelligence analysis director Mitch Silber.

The duo made the case in their report titled, When Terrorists Come Home: The Need For Rehabilitating And Reintegrating America's Convicted Jihadists, released at a talk organised by the Heritage Foundation think-tank on Dec 6.

The report drew on interviews with nine other convicted terrorists, some of whom are still in prison, as well as Ms Tania Joya, whose former husband went on to become a senior Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) member after spending time in a US prison.

The report cites the experiences of convicted terrorists and their difficulty in reintegrating into society, such as Chicago reformed terrorist Shaker Masri, who said he was dropped off by prison officials at a gas station in Minnesota at the end of his seven years in jail without any counselling or risk assessment.

Similarly, Mr Bryant Neal Vinas, who helped plan an attack on the Long Island Rail Road but later helped US investigators thwart his fellow militants, was sent to transitional housing after he got out and had trouble finding a job for some time.

While these men have kept themselves on the straight and narrow so far, the difficulties they face may dissuade other adherents who remain wedded to extremist ideology from trying to turn over a new leaf, Mr Morton and Mr Silber said.

"We realised this is not a one-off problem," said Mr Silber, citing how close to a quarter of America's convicted terrorists are due for release over the next five years, with the average age of those charged with ISIS-related crimes being 27. "What is there for these people?"

On America's terrorist rehabilitation programmes, Mr Morton said: "It's on an ad hoc basis... case by case, district by district, community by community. The problem is that you can't measure outcomes if things are not being structured in a more formalised way and if interventions are not being tailored."

The report argues that custom rehabilitation programmes are needed for violent extremists.


It critiques a federal programme - which houses convicted terrorists together in places called Communication Management Units to better monitor their communications - for potentially facilitating, instead of preventing, radicalisation in prisons.

The report cited how radical cleric Ahmad Musa Jirbil converted at least 35 inmates in a Michigan housing unit. After he was released, he took to preaching online and was so influential that 60 per cent of 150 Western fighters in the Syrian civil war followed him on Twitter.

Mr Morton and Mr Silber recommend voluntary deradicalisation programmes that can be modelled on existing ones meant to help gang members drop out of gangs and stay away from them after prison.

Those who complete these programmes, which can involve intensive cognitive behavioural therapy and community programmes to combat addiction, may get their sentences reduced slightly.

Said Mr Silber: "We know the recidivism rate for most types of crimes isn't zero. Terrorism is a particular kind of insidious crime for which we want the recidivism rate to be zero, but, with no type of programming in place, that's unlikely to happen."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2018, with the headline 'America grapples with return of reformed terrorists'. Print Edition | Subscribe