George Washington University has hired a former Islamic extremist to work at its center on homeland security — a man who once denounced the United States and made threats against the creators of the TV series “South Park” for depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit.
While reformed extremists have worked at universities in Europe to help fight terrorism, this is believed to be a first in the United States.
Jesse Morton, who was known as Younus Abdullah Muhammad when he was a recruiter for the al-Qaeda, brings a “unique perspective” to counter-terrorism work, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security.
“We haven’t figured out how to reach that individual who’s going down the path of radicalization,” Hughes said. “Jesse has been in that world and got out of that world.”
During his days as an extremist, Morton earned a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University.
Hughes said before making the hiring decision, he discussed Morton with the FBI, leaders in the security community and the lawyers that prosecuted Morton.
He said he’s sure Morton is completely reformed from the days he served time in federal prison after inciting people to join a terrorist organization.
“I trust him,” he said. “We did our due diligence.”
Nadia Oweidat, a fellow at the think tank New America who’s interviewed dozens of former extremists, said she doesn’t doubt Morton’s sincerity.
“People go through phases. They evolve and are finally able to see the light,” she said.
She doesn’t think Morton made up his de-radicalization to get a shorter prison sentence.
“When an extremist defects, they risk being completely targeted by their community — it’s like saying you’re gay publicly,” she said. “There are life-altering consequences and you don’t approach it lightly.”
She said other organizations should also recruit former extremists in the hopes of preventing future massacres such as the San Bernardino shooting or the November terror attack in Paris,both committed by radicalized Islamists.
“Defectors are our greatest treasure and an untapped resource,” she said. “They know the way in and they know the way out.”
From abused child to al-Qaeda operative
Morton, 37, was born in Pennsylvania and became a choir boy in his grandmother’s Baptist church.
He said he came from an abusive household, and as a young man sought out radical groups. Twice he went to jail on drug-related charges.
During one stint in the Richmond City Jail in Virginia he met an Islamic extremist and one of his followers, and began what he described as his “indoctrination” process.
Over a period of years, he said he became radicalized, appreciating the structure of Islam after a tumultuous childhood, and finding a “family” amongst his fellow al-Qaeda members.
“It gave me an outlet to have meaning, to have purpose, but it also gave me an outlet to express my rage and my frustration,” he said.
Morton and another extremist founded “Revolution Muslim” in 2008. In 2009 the pair praised Nadal Hasanfor his attack at Fort Hood, Texas, which left 13 people dead and 32 others wounded.
They called Hassan “an officer and a gentleman.”
“We’re commanded to terrorize the disbelievers,” Morton told CNN’s Drew Griffin that year. “Americans will always be a target and a legitimate target until America changes its nature in the international arena.”
But during a trip to Morocco, Morton’s ideology slowly and subtly started to change as he met young secular Muslims.
“They were bright, they were articulate,” he said. “What they really wanted, at the end of the day, was what we have: freedom.”
But it was too late — Morton couldn’t escape his extremist past.
A life-changing encounter with an FBI agent
While in Morrocco, Morton was arrested and extradited to face charges in the US connected to the “South Park” threats. He was sentenced in 2012 to more than 11 years in prison.
“They housed me in solitary confinement and I contemplated what I had become,” he said in a recent interview.
In prison he spent time in the library, where he read the works of Enlightenment philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, and American thinkers such as Thomas Payne, allowing him to “re-identify with Western culture and civilization.”
“In Locke, I found tolerance and secularism,” he said. “In Rousseau’s social contract, I saw the value of democracy.”
Then he met a “fabulous” FBI agent who would change his life.
While other law enforcement officers “demonized” him, Morton said this agent showed him respect — and that changed his entrenched views that the US government was evil.
“She was sincere. All she cared about was protecting the public. She really was a good family person, she loved her country, and it wasn’t a manipulation, as far as I saw it, and so I opened up,” he said.
Though sentenced to more than 11 years, Morton served less than three years before he was released in February, 2015.
In the past year, Morton has worked with the FBI on “high profile cases,” Hughes said, declining to elaborate.
Morton will not be working directly to reform extremists as part of his work at George Washington, nor will he be teaching, Hughes said, but instead will focus on writing and research.
Morton said he thinks his experience as an extremist will help the counter-terrorism effort.
“You can learn from books, you can learn from interviews, but having not, as they say, walked in a man’s moccasins, you can’t really understand totally where a person comes from,” he said.
Morton said he knows he has to earn the trust of the George Washington community and the US public.
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“This is an opportunity for me to make amends, to some degree,” he said. “I realize that I was completely wrong in my perspectives.”
“I suffer from a tremendous amount of guilt,” he added. “I have seen things that people have done and to know that I once sympathized and supported that view — it sickens me.”