The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New online magazine aims to counter extremist propaganda

Jesse Morton, a reformed former extremist, speaks during an interview at George Washington University on Sept. 9, 2016. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Before they joined forces to battle radicalization and extremism, Jesse Morton and Mitch Silber were on opposite sides.

Morton was an al-Qaeda supporter who helped create “Inspire,” an English-language online magazine devoted to promoting the terrorist group. Silber was director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department whose job was to trace people like Morton.

After Morton abandoned his militant ways and Silber left the NYPD, the two men came together in 2017 to create Parallel Networks, a nonprofit organization that aims to de-radicalize people who are part of extremist groups and help them reintegrate into society after prison time. Eventually, they also started working with former members of left- and right-wing extremist organizations, which they monitor online.

Now Morton and Silber are launching part of the effort to counter extremist propaganda online with a new magazine called Ahul-Taqwa, Arabic for People of Consciousness.

The layout of the magazine resembles al-Qaeda and Islamic State pamphlets, in an attempt to draw in the targeted audience. But the stories will question the legitimacy of the Islamic State’s ideology and self-declared caliphate, and will include interviews with former followers of extremist groups, Morton said.

The goal is to challenge the jihadist narrative spread via online outlets and to combat the migration of extremists to encrypted platforms.

The creators decided to launch the magazine on June 4, the fifth anniversary of the Islamic State’s declaration of the caliphate, and hope to publish editions quarterly.

“We are launching a new English magazine on behalf of Dawla to fill in for Dabiq and Rumiyah,” they wrote, referring to the Arabic word an Islamic State sympathizer would use for the militant group and using a Facebook profile that they created, which looks like one that might belong to an Islamic State member.

“Good work. God bless you bro,” another profile answered.

The six people working on the project have had to change the base of their operations because of security concerns. This past weekend, three of them came together in a hotel room in Washington, where they went on with their efforts to infiltrate Islamic State social media groups, interact with Islamic State sympathizers and maintain their own Telegram and Facebook groups, which they will use to circulate the magazine online.

“What we would want to achieve is to engage with people in the chat rooms but also to let ISIS know we have infiltrated your groups,” a female member of Parallel Networks who monitors ISIS members and sympathizers online said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

As a next move, Morton and Silber plan to apply Ahul-Taqwa’s template to projects to counter far-right extremism and also establish a help line.

While there have been many similar projects online, this idea was especially interesting because of Mortan’s and Silber’s backgrounds, said Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert and vice president of the New America Foundation.

“Both people have a serious background in this matter, one from a law enforcement perspective and the other one from being a jihadist,” Bergen said. “When we talk about countering jihadist ideologies, I always thought the best people to do this would be defectors like Morton.”

Morton’s journey into jihadism began while he was in a prison. At the end of 2000, he was incarcerated for four months in Richmond on drug-related charges and met a man who had fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets who introduced him to Salafist jihadist ideology. Morton changed his name to Younus Abdullah Muhammad.

“I left prison and changed my life completely: No alcohol, no drugs, no cigarettes, prayer five times a day,” he said.

In 2007, Morton became co-founder of the group Revolution Muslim, which he used to spread online propaganda and to advocate the establishment of an Islamic State through the removal of rulers in Muslim countries and the end of “Western Imperialism.” The group also expressed its support for Osama bin Laden.

He began to work with Samir Khan, a U.S. citizen who created Inspire magazine who was later killed in a drone strike in Yemen alongside Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born al-Qaeda planner and propagandist.

“Back then we knew that in order to reach the English-speaking crowd, what was needed was a magazine done in the language of youth and mixed with Hollywood effects,” Morton said in an interview.

During that period, Silber was investigating “Revolution Muslim.” In his eyes, Morton was al-Qaeda’s chief American propagandist.

“Jesse was very smart; he knew where freedom of speech ended and never crossed that line,” Silber said.

That is, until April 2010, when Morton and an associate urged people to kill the writers of Comedy Central’s “South Park” for supposedly insulting the prophet Muhammad.

To escape possible arrest, Morton flew to Morocco, where his then-wife was from. He worked and lived there until he was arrested in May 2011 on a U.S. request.

He ended up incarcerated with Mohamed Fizazi, a preacher who German and U.S. intelligence officials believed influenced the 9/11 plotters during sermons at a mosque in Hamburg.

“I was very excited to be so close to him and curious to learn from him, but then instead he had changed his views . . . which made me rethink about my own beliefs,” he said.

Morton was extradited to the United States and sentenced in February 2012 to 11½ years. But he was released in March 2015 and began working as an undercover informant for U.S. authorities, as reported by The Washington Post.

He became a fellow in August 2016 at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, which Silber had helped him into, but had to leave the program after he was rearrested in 2017 on accusations that he brought cocaine to meet a prostitute. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison.

Silber left his position in the NYPD in 2012 and began working in the private sector.

“I thought after the death of bin Laden and Awlaki that jihadist movements would die down,” he said, “but then came ISIS.”

Both Silber and Morton say it is important to offer vulnerable young people a counternarrative created in part by people who were themselves radicalized.

“Now it is our fight to reclaim the magazines back from them, and this is just a first step in a long fight,” Morton said.