Bio: Jesse Morton was the first former Islamist extremist to take on a public role in American efforts to combat extremism. Previously, as cofounder of and chief propagandist for Revolution Muslim, a New York-based group active in the 2000s, he helped to inject and perpetuate the narrative of Al-Qaeda and Salafi-jihadist ideology in the United States. Morton had direct contact with some of the most prominent extremist preachers in the West.
After his incarceration in 2011, Morton de-radicalized and then actively assisted law enforcement in several terror investigations. Simultaneously, he has helped develop tools for assessment and analysis, techniques for early intervention, and counter-messaging. He most recently held a position at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
Walk us through the beginning of your journey: Were there any factors or triggers that you think made you particularly vulnerable to radicalization or interested in the groups you ended up sympathizing with or joining? What was the backdrop to your early life that made you interested or just drawn to these groups or their ideologies?
“The easiest way for me to explain the ‘beginning of my journey’ is to reflect on a conversation I had with a chief analyst at the NYPD once I was arrested and extradited from Morocco back to the United States. The 2006 NYPD Report: Radicalization in the West divides the radicalization process up into stages. So, when I was telling my story (a typical case of trying to form-fit a case study to a preexistent model - also known as confirmation bias) I stated midway through it, ‘I guess that takes us up to stage 3 then.’
It made her kind of angry and we started to discuss the model(s). Ultimately she inquired, ‘Well if it wasn’t a process, at what point do you think you were radicalized?’ I held my hand up about 36 inches from the ground and replied, “When I was about this tall.” She never asked for a detailed explanation of the comment, but I meant to say that predisposition/susceptibility to radical ideologies can, and usually does, stem from a very deep-rooted conflict between the individual and society. This can be based on religion, ethnicity, class and other variables. I imagine it is much too difficult to measure and is very complex. However, for me growing up in a lower class, suffering abuse at-home and watching as society seemed unconcerned (not simply with my issue but issues in general) mixed with a multitude of other factors that made me question the status-quo and think radically from a very young age. I sometimes wonder whether I would have been mobilizing workers on the factory floor rather than recruiting at the mosque if I had been born 30 years earlier. It is for this reason that I think the best way to deal with radical ideas is to build social programs that provide alternatives. Rather than fear “radical ideas” or “critical thinking,” radical ideologies need challenged and alternative pathways facilitated.”
Were you recruited for your group, or did you find your way to them? How?
“Recruitment is a top-down and bottom-up process. In a sense, it seems to me, it almost always occurs simultaneously. A lot of journalism (and, unfortunately, academic work) tends to portray the vulnerable individual taken advantage of by a recruiter. In fact, the first stage of recruitment is simply the dissemination of information. When I was ‘recruiting,’ we followed an adage of Ibn Taymia, sometimes called the godfather of the modern jihad. In his book Commanding the Good and Forbidding Evil, Ibn Taymia states emphatically that the one working for Islam is not held accountable for converting all of the people to the truth, but rather is only responsible for ‘making the truth accessible to those that seek it.’ Thus, the individuals that are more-susceptible have typically already attained more than a moderate interest in Islam and, at the same time, are looking for an individual identity alongside a sense of belonging. Once an individual is embedded in a network, whether online or in-person, psychological and sociological principles naturally occur. We might think of the information (or ideology) in the same manner as physicists discuss ‘dark matter.’ We cannot really see or measure dark matter but we know it is responsible for the universe’s expansion, and at an ever-accelerating rate. We get the physics of orbits, of galaxy formation and etc. in the same way we understand a great deal about personal and group psychology and dynamics. Yet, the ideology is more murky, its role hard to ascertain. I was susceptible for sure and searching. As a convert, I help a particular interest in taking Islam seriously. I left an ultraliberal lifestyle for the structure and ritual of religion, but I did not leave my non-conformist views behind. So, when I ran into the Islamic Thinkers Society (an offshoot of Al-Muhajiroun in the U.S.) I found my calling and belonging, an avenue and platform to project my new perspectives. It was a dynamic process however. I was looking for them as much as they were looking for me.”
Identity, to some extent, seems to play a role in one’s radicalization process. Can you talk a bit more about that theme, and whether it resonates for you? However, many people question their identity, especially in the transition between youth and adulthood. What was different for you?
“It is why we see the majority of violent extremists coming from the youth (though certainly not all). Everyone is searching for an identity and the interesting thing about the world we live in is that people can hold numerous identities at the same time. I was hardly different. I was searching for the same thing. However, I was frustrated by what may be determined as an unfortunate set of circumstances. I was radicalized politically very young and so when religion gave me an identity, I could not but gravitate toward a politicized interpretation of Islam. In the context of 9-11, war and other perceived or real grievances, I developed a new identity. I hated ‘Jesse Morton’ and so became ‘Younus Abdullah Muhammad.’ Younus was like a new-birth. I gave me something to contribute to. As that identity grew, I became more Younus, less and less Jesse. That indeed was a gradual, though not-exactly linear set of processes.”
There is a debate around the role of ideology: What do you think the role of the group’s ideology in each of your processes of radicalization? Was it more about group/social dynamics, or was the ideology really the draw?
“I discussed this briefly above, but in simple terms, I think in the process of progression from radicalization into violent extremism (two terms I think need not be conflated), group dynamics plays a predominant role in the phase from ‘cognitive opening’ to ‘commitment to radical beliefs, while ideology provides the primary force for transitioning from radical belief to staunch support for, or engagement in violent extremist behavior.”
At what point did the facade in your worldview begin to crack? What events or actions or even brief moments of clarity led to you questioning your world view?
“Much of my transition story is in the press and preserved online. In all honesty, however, the number one event that led to transitioning me from a pre-contemplation to initiation ‘stage of change’ was getting arrested as a result of my ‘risky activism.’ Seeing that I sacrificed everything personally dear to me, to myself for the sake of a cause that suddenly seemed so nonsensical really shattered my worldview. The true façade was the notion that through the means of extremist violence one could make the world a better place.”