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George Washington University hires a former al-Qaeda recruiter

George Washington University. (Photo by Mary F. Calvert for The Washington Post)

A former Islamist extremist who supported al-Qaeda and exhorted others to follow Osama bin Laden has joined George Washington University as a research fellow.

Jesse Morton, who was born in Pennsylvania and said he became a Muslim at age 20 after reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” while in prison for a drug offense, argues that he can offer an insider’s perspective on Islamist radicalization — and how to counter that threat.

Morton is the first former extremist in the United States to join an academic program, Lorenzo Vidino, director of GW’s Program on Extremism, said, although there are some working similar capacities in Europe.

Vidino pointed to the ways law enforcement works with former gang members to infiltrate criminal networks.

“This is the first time it’s been done with a jihadist,” he said.

Morton offered something unique: experience as a recruiter for al-Qaeda. And a master’s degree from Columbia University.

Federal officials billed him as a threat to American freedom. Now they’re paying him to help.

That combination of insider’s perspective, intellectual curiosity and analytic ability makes him invaluable, Vidino argued. “It’s an unusual hire,” he said, and one that the university undertook only after months of research, including interviews with law enforcement and intelligence sources and even an attempt to trick Morton with another former extremist to see if he was telling them the truth.

“Healthy skepticism is fair,” Vidino said. “He has said it’s up to him to prove he’s truly reformed.”

Brett Zongker, a spokesman for GW, said that Morton would be working at the off-campus think tank, which launched last summer to study both violent and nonviolent extremism, and that he will not be interacting with students. Zongker also noted that the program is externally funded and that Morton’s position is being funded by an anonymous private foundation.

“I can make an incredible contribution,” Morton said, and people “don’t need to be worried about whether or not I’m de-radicalized” or whether there’s a risk.

Several years ago, federal prosecutors argued that Morton had, through his Revolution Muslim website, urged violence in the name of Islam, including attacks on writers for “South Park” for a satirical depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Prosecutors said he had radicalized many, endangered the lives of innocent people and worked to destroy the country’s fundamental principles.

He was in touch with Jose Pimentel, who was later arrested for plotting to kill members of the U.S. military coming back from Afghanistan, and Rezwan Ferdaus, who admitted to a plot to attack the Capitol and the Pentagon.

Morton pleaded guilty in 2012 to conspiring to solicit murder, making threatening communications and using the Internet to place others in fear.

A federal judge sentenced him to 11 1/2 years in prison.

Within three years, he had been released and was being paid by the FBI.

Morton said there are many paths to radicalization. And he said his most valuable contribution may be to help experts understand the opposite path.

That’s a view echoed by some national leaders, including President Obama, who expressed a “need to lift up the voices of those who know the hypocrisy of groups like [the Islamic State] firsthand, including former extremists.” Vidino noted that in a discussion hosted by the program last fall, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John P. Carlin said that countering violent extremism requires “countering the message of hate online. Often former extremists can be the most persuasive voices.”

Morton said he grew up in Pennsylvania and New York in a “very leftist household where religion was considered absurd.” After what he said was a traumatic childhood, he ran away from home at 16 and lived on the streets.

“I was looking for an identity, looking for a worldview to cling to,” Morton said.

He first turned to what he called an ultra-liberal perspective, but rejected it. During a brief time in prison, he said he became mesmerized by Malcolm X, really relating to his story, and ultimately converted to Islam.

He changed his name to Younus Abdullah Muhammad.

He graduated from Metropolitan College of New York and earned a master’s degree in international affairs with a concentration in the Middle East from Columbia in 2008. He worked as a substance-abuse, mental-health and family counselor, he said, and with nonprofit groups working on issues of homelessness and shelters.

As he became increasingly radicalized over the years — something he is writing about in his first paper for the program, an insider’s perspective of a group’s formation — he crossed the line from legal to illegal speech and threats, he said. He’ll compare his own account of himself and the other two people who formed Revolution Muslim, which urged attacks and allegiance to bin Ladenwith the academic analysis of the formation of such groups.

And he said he hopes to spur faster action, from research to policy to implementation. Too often the United States is reacting to terrorist organizations, Morton said, rather than the other way around.

Talking to him is “fascinating,” Vidino said. “I’ve worked on issues of jihadism in the U.S. for 15  years,” and even when discussing cases in which Vidino was an expert witness and had pored over all the court documents, Morton can astonish him. “He was with these people, planning. . . . He’ll tell me details that, oh my God, that completely change my perspective on the case,” as with the case of Samir Khan, who wrote that he was proud to be a traitor to the United States and furthered efforts of al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen.

‘A proud traitor’: Samir Khan reported dead alongside Aulaqi

“This is someone who has done this the last few  years with the FBI,” but he can contribute far more than intelligence, names, connections, strategies, Vidino said. “It’s understanding the mindset.”

Becoming de-radicalized was a long process, just as his growing extremism had been, Morton said.

The beginning came when he was in Morocco, the country where his wife was from and where he moved in 2009 hoping to become a professor. While teaching young men, he realized that his idealized, utopian vision of Islamic society with adherence to sharia law “was something that very few people in that country were interested in.”

He said they spoke admiringly of Western liberation and freedom, which made him think more about that way of life.

He began to examine more critically al-Qaeda’s propaganda. Some things bin Laden said, for example, “didn’t make sense to me.”

Then he was charged with a crime by the United States and had to choose whether to try to flee or to return to the country “to face the music.” His disengagement with the cause led him to choose to return, Morton said.

He spent five months in a Moroccan prison awaiting his extradition to the United States and spent much of that time, he said, reading books and reassessing Islamist ideology.

When he was picked up by a private plane and asked by a U.S. agent if he wanted to be called Younus Abdullah Muhammad or the name he had been given at birth, he surprised himself with his answer: Jesse Morton.

He was still skeptical of law enforcement at that time, he said. But for a long time, while he was in prison in solitary confinement, he kept thinking about how he had chosen his birth name.

A guard there bent the rules of confinement and allowed him to spend six or seven hours a day in the library there, he said, and he began to read a set of the “Great Books of the Western World,” published by Encyclopedia Britannica.

“I dove into it,” he said, becoming fascinated by writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Thomas Payne, Alexander Hamilton. He read the Federalist Papers.

He started to realize the value of the Enlightenment, and post-Enlightenment thinking, its impact on the world and the importance of the American Revolution and democracy, he said.

When he met with law enforcement to work on his plea bargain, there was a female agent whom he said “re-humanized me.”

She was empathetic, which he initially took for manipulation but came to trust.

Through her, he said, he began to believe that the ultimate objective of law enforcement was not to wage war against Muslims but to protect the public from terrorist attacks.

Morton said law enforcement agents told him things about some of his contacts that he hadn’t known, things which he said he wasn’t authorized to speak about by U.S. law enforcement. He said he wasn’t aware of the full ramifications of the ideas he was espousing.

Morton realized something about the people working to counterterrorism, he said: “They were good people. . . . That erased the us-vs.-them, black-white worldview.”

Because he still had credibility within the extremist world, he had valuable information; he warned U.S. law enforcement, at a time when the world was changing rapidly, that Syria was a new Afghanistan. He was able to track foreign fighters who were attacking with suicide bombings and decapitations, he said, helping the United States.

And then he went back to study Islam, looking at historical and jihadi interpretations of the religion from a more critical perspective, he said. “I dissected the ideology I once clung to, and was infatuated by,” he said. “It was a very lengthy process.”

Now he knows many people who say they are de-radicalized, he said, whom he thinks of as disengaged, not fully de-radicalized.

He is, he said. But this new role, which he began a few weeks ago, will further his commitment, he said. Morton sees it as a bit of a vindication, “a bit of an ability to make amends, if I can have a positive impact.

“I am firmly confident that will be the case,” that he can help to prevent, and counter, extremism.

Morton, now 37, lives in Northern Virginia. He has two children. And he says he is a devout Muslim.

But he rejects fundamentalist adherence to religious rules now, he said; he said he believes that makes people close-minded. His religion is personal now, Morton said.

“I feel better spiritually now,” he said. “. . . I have a better relationship with God as a result.”

Vidino connected with Morton when he was seeking people who had recruited and radicalized others to the cause; because Morton lives nearby, it was easy to talk with him frequently, and as they worked together, he recognized Morton’s intelligence and academic credentials.

Vidino has heard criticism from people who say it’s foolish to trust someone who recently advocated for terrorism. But he said he has gotten more positive reaction than negative to the hire. “We’re not going around looking for formers to have on staff,” he said, using the shorthand for people who say they have de-radicalized. “We stumbled upon him and understood the value.”