An extremist’s path to academia — and fighting terrorism

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Across the country, students are heading back to school. As on many campuses, today is also the first day of class at George Washington University.

This summer, a think tank at the school made one of the most unique hires in academia.

The “NewsHour” has a broadcast exclusive interview with a man who was once convicted of terrorism-related charges, and is now a researcher on campus.

I caught up with Jesse Curtis Morton recently.

This is Jesse Curtis Morton. In 2010, he went by another name, Younus Abdullah Muhammad.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON, George Washington University: We will fight you and destroy you if we have to, but we prefer that you come home and pack it up. Stop killing our innocent men, women and children overseas.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Born in the U.S., he grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but Morton became a Muslim extremist. This was him on the streets of New York.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: There will be no peace with Israel until Israel is in pieces.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Morton also helped found Revolution Muslim, a Web site that the FBI says encouraged Muslims to support Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and other violent jihadi groups.

The Web site threatened violence against the creators of the Comedy Central show “South Park” for a 2010 cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed. In 2012, Morton was sentenced to more than 11-and-a-half years in jail for using the Internet to threaten bodily harm.

But here we are four years later. He’s a free man with a decent-paying job at a George Washington University think tank in the nation’s capital. Morton is out of jail early because he cooperated with authorities in the U.S. and overseas. He worked undercover to gather intelligence on those who still trusted the man they saw in those videos.

He helped train law enforcement to recognize people on the path he was on, and helped analyze the behavior of suspected terrorists with insights only someone like him could have.

You’re on camera now. Your face is going to be out there. And you’re going to be walking around a college campus, as someone who has been convicted of supporting al-Qaida.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s 10,000 sets of parents who might be a little concerned that someone with a target on their back might be walking around on the same campus as their students.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: Well, there has been an extensive security plan put in place by a very competent security team at G.W. And we have assessed the risk with the law enforcement community, federal, local, and some state agencies. And there is very, very, very little risk at this point.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Getting to this point, Morton says, has been a long road through radicalization and then de-radicalization.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: I came from a very tumultuous childhood, where there was very severe abuse. And when I reached out to my society and tried to get assistance to stop that abuse, the school, my family, and the society around me didn’t prevent it. And so, at a very young age, I rejected American culture and the American way of life, so to say, and sought a new identity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Not to discount the abuse that you went through, but lots of kids live through child abuse. They don’t go out and build Web sites supporting Osama bin Laden.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: Well, it’s a common denominator with regard to radicalization processes. When we study pre-radicalization, we oftentimes see trauma, we see criminality, we see that the radical or the violent extremist interpretation of Islam attracts people with some degree of baggage.

It doesn’t mean that I justify it. It doesn’t mean that I blame what I became on what I went through.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A runaway at 16, he was a hippie following the Grateful Dead. Drug dealing landed him in jail, and there, he says, began his slow introduction to Islam.

There are people who convert to Islam all over the world every day, don’t end up where you are. How’s that?

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: I was a radical and extremely political before I adopted Islam. So, I think I naturally gravitated toward the politicized interpretation of Islam.

And from there, I identified with the sort of anti-imperialist message that was being promoted by al-Qaida.

HARI SREENIVASAN: His thoughts were becoming progressively more radical. In 2006, at a Muslim Day Parade in New York, he happened upon the extremist Muslim Thinkers Society.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: I glanced to my left and saw the black flag, what we call the black flag of ISIS now, but has a much longer history, and saw the movement or the group promoting the images of dead children on the streets and selling T-shirts that said “I love jihad” in Arabic.

I immediately walked up to them and told them I wanted to join them. And very soon, I was climbing their ranks and becoming one of their primary speakers on the streets of Manhattan, Jackson Heights, Queens, protests outside of Israeli embassies, et cetera, et cetera.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Around this time, Morton enrolled at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, earning a master’s degree in international affairs.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: Sort of sort of like I was living dual lives. I was Jesse Morton in school, and I was Younus Abdullah Muhammad, leader of Revolution Muslim, outside of school. And I never combined the two, so people didn’t really know what I was doing while I was at Columbia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But the Ivy League education did nothing to moderate Morton’s world view. In 2007, he and a few other radicals started the Revolution Muslim Web site.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: At the time, online radicalization was becoming easier because of the Web 2.0, the relatively nascent platforms like YouTube and chat rooms.

Online forums, that was the platform back then. And you could see that the number of hits that were on the Web site were growing and mounting, so we knew that we were having an enhanced impact.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The now-defunct Web site posted calls for jihad and excerpts from “Inspire,” the al-Qaida magazine.

Lorenzo Vidino is the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. It was his idea to hire Morton.

LORENZO VIDINO, George Washington University: His Web site was one of the first — I would say the first Web site in the United States that spread the message of al-Qaida, of other groups.

And it was sort of the go-to place for wannabe jihadists in the United States. It is no coincidence that a variety of individuals who have gone down the trajectory of radicalization and eventually become terrorists were at some point in one way or the other involved in the Web site.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In 2009, Morton moved to Morocco. While running the Web site, he taught English and standardized test prep. Ironically, moving to Morocco didn’t harden his views toward jihad. Quite the opposite. Meeting a new generation of students, Morton says, made him begin rethinking things.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: And in my conversations with my students, I realized that the vision, the utopian vision of the Islamic State that I held, the general, particularly from amongst the millennial population, didn’t have any desire for such a society.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In May of 2011, Morton was arrested in Morocco on a U.S. criminal complaint, charged with communicating threats online. After five months in a Moroccan prison, he was flown back to the U.S. to face trial.

His de-radicalization began on the plane ride home.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: And the agent that initiated communication on that plane asked me what I wanted to be called, Jesse Morton or Younus Abdullah Muhammad. And, interestingly enough, I responded Jesse Morton. And it shocked me too.

And over time, I learned that my identity as Younus Abdullah Muhammad was an effort to kill a person that I hated.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He eventually received a sentence of 11-and-a-half years. In jail, he was interviewed by counterterror officials. Those interactions, he says, further changed his world view.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: I had interaction with a very intelligent and a very sincere female FBI agent. And over the course of a very long debriefing process, the world view that I once held that held them to be enemies of Islam and engaged in a conspiracy to prevent Islam from establishing itself politically was, in fact, false.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Soon, Morton says he began helping counterterrorism officials in their investigations.

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: We generated significant rewards from my cooperation, some of which involved international activity. At the time, the Syrian civil war was heating up, and more jihadist groups were appearing. And several people from the West were joining them.

I can’t talk about specifics of particular cases, but we also yielded domestic investigatory gains.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lorenzo Vidino thinks Morton will make a valuable contribution to research on terrorism and radicalization.

LORENZO VIDINO: Most of the analysis of radicalization comes from outsiders, from people who are just studying it. This analysis will come from the inside, firsthand from somebody who has lived it and has played a prominent role in that scene.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s also going to be several people watching this that say, how do we know he’s telling the truth? How can we trust him?

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: The prosecuting attorney on my case advocated for my hiring at G.W. And some of the biggest high-profile individuals of the counterterrorism community have also vouched for me.

And so I will prove that to the public as time goes on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What if somebody doesn’t want to believe that and puts your life at risk?

JESSE CURTIS MORTON: If I am willing to sacrifice in the past so much to promote such a disgusting ideology, then I think that, if I’m sincere in my reform, I should be as equally dedicated and equally passionate about trying to repair some of the damage that I have done.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the PBS “NewsHour,” I’m Hari Sreenivasan in Washington.

The post An extremist’s path to academia — and fighting terrorism appeared first on PBS NewsHour.