Leaving Islamism: In Conversation with a former Al-Qaeda Recruiter

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Leaving Islamism: In Conversation with a former Al-Qaeda Recruiter

DATE:  6 April 2021, 3pm – 4pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Jesse Morton



Eilish O’Gara 00:52

Okay, good afternoon everybody and welcome to Henry Jackson’s event today, on, our Islamist event. You may have watched two weeks ago, our event, Abandoning the Far Right, which was extremely successful. So I really wanted to do an event today to talk about Jesse Morton and his journey into Islamist extremism and back out of it again. So welcome to today’s event. A little bit of housekeeping, it’s a one-hour event today and there is a Q&A button down below if you’d like to leave a question below, and I will read them out, as many as I can, towards the end to Jesse. Just to begin, I’m going to give a brief introduction on Jesse Morton. Jesse was, until 2011, one of America’s leading jihadist preachers, linked with al-Muhajiroun, and a prominent radicaliser in the West. Morton co-founded and was a chief propagandist of, Revolution Muslim, a New York City based group active in the 2000s, where he helped insert the narrative of al-Qaeda and Salafism into the American ambit. On renouncing his extremist ideology, Jesse founded, Parallel Networks, an organization combating hate and extremism. He’s also a research coordinator at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue against violent extremism network in North America. Jesse has lectured at various universities across the globe and has worked at George Washington’s University program on extremism, focused on issues such as jihadist propaganda. He was in 2017, named by Foreign Policy’s, one of the prominent global thinkers. So we’re going to talk a little bit to Jesse, in just one moment. Again, be sure to use the Q&A function down below if you have any questions, as I’m sure some will rise as we go through our discussion. And it’s going to take quite a similar, sort of, trail as our far right event two weeks ago, and that’s purposely done. So we can sort of see, you know, the ways in which people get drawn into extremism now from the other side of the ideological perspective, so, with regards to Islamists. So, and that really prompted my first question, Jesse, and welcome and thank you for joining us. And if you could tell me a little bit about your life before you converted to Islam, and how you became a radical and how your upbringing and anything that happened in that, in that time, impacted and led to your decision to become a radical Islamist. So welcome. Thank you.


Jesse Morton 03:19

Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you for having me and, sure, I’d be happy to. So my name is Jesse Morton, but as you mentioned, for a long time in my life, I went by the name, Younus Abdullah Muhammad, who was a very prominent radicaliser and recruiter that largely set the template for Western radicalisation and recruitment, particularly online. But my story begins in sort of small town, Pennsylvania. And my background is that my father was an affluent sort of suburban kid, the son of a prominent attorney, who went to college after his father died during his senior year of high school with a, sort of, cognitive opening of his own, drawn towards the counterculture far leftist milieu. He moved to rural Pennsylvania, where he met my mother, who was a very local, localized small town girl, and impregnated her and then got married and moved us to a commune in the middle of nowhere in rural Pennsylvania. And that’s important because context of youth is particularly important in sort of the dynamics in the household, of course, with regard to adverse childhood experiences and their correlation to extremism on the far right and Islamism we see a lot of track. And so I grew up in the middle of nowhere, what by all accounts should have been a utopic sort of far leftist lifestyle, but reality set in and my mother’s, sort of, mental health complications, combined with the fact that we are living in the middle of nowhere, combined with the fact that my father started to develop a parallel relationship with another woman, led my mom to abuse her children rather significantly. And I had a younger sibling, sister and brother, but abusers typically isolate one child to not to abuse. And so I found myself in a dynamic where I was the black sheep, and constantly the focus and ire of resentment of my mother, projecting her anger, or rage and frustration onto me. And because we were in the middle of nowhere, no one could really intervene to prevent the abuse. So it was rather barbaric. I developed the personality of self-sacrifice, but I realized now that essentially what was happening was I was being traumatized. My connection to my body was rather detached, and I found meaning in suffering, and set forth a way where I would protect my sister from the abuse of my mother and develop this idea of myself, in a sort of, Messianic complex, early on in life. That set forth a personality that was rather predisposed to not accept the society that I was, you know, grow up in. Because I felt that the society was not intervening. I would tell family members, I would tell school officers, guidance counsellors, of the abuse that was going on in the house. And eventually I cracked and left with this sort of dysfunction in my background, and a personality that had developed an inability to be risk averse, very prone to risk seeking behaviour, and like many went about seeking for anything, when I ran away at the age of 15. Lived on the streets for several years, where I did things like, hustle in inner city neighbourhoods, but also joined counterculture band like my father, Grateful Dead – we call it here in the United States, travelled with a very far leftist counterculture and found meaning and significance in that counterculture, but ultimately gravitated more towards drug addiction, selling drugs, criminal behaviour, was arrested, read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And that is when this sort of cognitive opening toward radicalisation began and my identity started to shift. I realized in retrospect that I was looking for homeostasis. In Islam, I was really on my way towards addiction and towards serious complications in life. And in so many ways, Islam gave me balance and stability where there previously was none, in the rule following, in the order. We could talk a little bit about that process of radicalisation, because from the opening, to reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and finding in Malcolm X, an archetype for a social justice warrior that had, in many ways, tracked the same paths of trauma and adverse experiences as myself. I started to dive deep into religion, and within about a year and a half, became a full blown, committed extremist, but that is basically what preceded it.


Eilish O’Gara 07:39

Yeah, that’s really interesting. You talk about reading, how you actually, you read Malcolm X’s autobiography before you even read the Quran, I’ve seen you say in previous interviews. And it made your conversion to Islam, a more politicized journey. And just off the back of what you said about when you were younger about, you know, not accepting society and the way it has almost neglected you. What were your main political/religious beliefs in the early years of your conversion? And how did the politicisation of your conversion to Islam influence the path you took into extremism?


Jesse Morton 08:16

So, I took with me a very anarchistic far leftist critique of my own society that meshed well with this idea that society did not protect me, and also that society did not notice my, you know, in all frankness, there’s a big quest for like significance and attention in a lot of people that go on to become recruiters. So I felt like I had a lot to offer the world but the world did not see it. And so I found in this sort of far leftist, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein oriented critical theory critique of Israel. When I first started to get serious about Islam, it actually unfolded because it took incarceration. After I read, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I continued to live a criminal lifestyle but flirted with these religious ideas. But it’s very interesting in retrospect to note that the religion, the part of the religion that fascinated me the most was like end of times prophecy. I found myself reading like the Book of Revelations, the Book of Daniel, stuff on Islam about, you know, the mathematical computations of the Quran in very weird, esoteric interpretations, until I found myself incarcerated in Richmond city jail in Virginia, which is a state here, and met a veteran of the Afghan Soviet jihad, who was Moroccan. And basically what that did for me was it gave me an understanding of the pillars of Islam and it gave me the stability, it also started to formulate a new identity. And there was a spurt of activity that led him to getting in a fight with a non-Muslim and me asking about the conflict, because I, in growing up, had an understanding of religion that led me away from organized religion because my father had, you know, sort of, far leftist anti-religious views. But I was open to the idea of spirituality. But what I saw in that situation was a rule following a really rigorous set of systems. And when he told me that the reason that he fought the individual was because the Prophet Muhammad said in a clear Hadith, that if a person comes and stands in front of your prayer, move them gently with your right hand, and if they don’t move, then get up and fight them, ‘For verily, they are Shaitan’. Here he was referring to text to justify behaviour that was violent. And for me, it took a while, but it was the beginning of a desensitisation process, as it was explained. And he explained to me, this is prior to 9/11, so the offline role of radicalisation was much more prominent back then. And he explained to me that there’s also a hadith, that’s narrated by the Prophet Muhammad, that says ‘the black flags will be raised in Khorasan’, which the Jihadists interpret to be Afghanistan, and it will not be stopped until it reaches Jerusalem. And this is attached to an end of times where there’s a resurrection of a caliphate. And he told me about a pending war between the Muslims and the West, because the Taliban had established Sharia law in Afghanistan, and they would never take it. But what that did was it connected immediately, for me the political views and the anarchist views and the anti-imperialist views that I held, largely anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli views. And I was able immediately to connect, oh, how am I going to take the archetype of Malcolm X and connect it to this ideology, didn’t really think much about it, but and didn’t really pursue it, got out, this was 2000, 2001, early 2001, I left. And in about a six-month period of time, I absorbed a lot of the basic understanding of their religion. And so when 9/11 happened, I was, when, and George Bush ultimately said, ‘You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists’, it was quite natural for me, unfortunately, to go down that rabbit hole and start to pursue what the terrorists say. And so looking at the theology of it all, and then being an American with some experience, in like, far leftist mentalities, I slowly started to merge the two. And I realized in retrospect, that essentially, much of the narrative of jihadism is overlapping with that sort of anti-imperialist lens, and that’s what can make it very much appeal to youth. And even when we, just briefly as an aside, when we chart, like, radicalisation trajectories in social media, we see a lot of migration from like Democracy Now into like Alex Jones type conspiracy theory, and then bumping into jihadism, and sort of blending the two because the conspiracy theory and the anti-imperialist critique are part of that, of that, worldview, which feeds all of those sort of cognitive biases that are associated with people operating in a space of trauma, and not processing information rationally, but irrationally in a space of, fight, flight, freeze. So another conversation, but, that’s basically, essentially what happened.


Eilish O’Gara 12:43

And you talk a little bit about, just, just then about, that was all, a lot of that was pre 9/11. With regards to, you know, after the 9/11 attacks, I’ve read a little bit about, that you know, you were listening to the teachings of Osama bin Laden and, you decided it was time, post – 9/11, to Americanise jihadism, and take, take jihadism online. Can you tell us a little bit more about how this was a step change in your recruitment, in the group’s recruitment? And what you did to put Jihadism on the worldwide web yourself?


Jesse Morton 13:18

Well, my role as a recruiter and a radicaliser was an evolution. So it starts when, after 9/11, I was living in a Syracuse Salvation Army, and I was asked to leave because I was a practicing Muslim, and they found Arabic literature and everybody was kind of, you know, in, you know, very scared. And so I, in retrospect, I understand, but I didn’t understand it then. So I ended up back in New York City, where I started to cement an identity because I moved to Harlem, on the streets where Malcolm X once walked. So here I was, you know, tracking that same path and found myself on 125th Street, preaching primarily to non – jihadists, because I had no connection to the movement. You know, I had – to, to, to what was already developing over in the UK and other spaces, like al – Muhajiroun, they were already prominent, but I didn’t know they existed. So I was preaching the same rhetoric, arriving at it from my own conclusions of the transcriptions, the translations of Osama bin Laden’s teachings, looking at books on Al-Qaeda and etc. And I was preaching in the run up to the Iraq war, on the streets of Harlem, where I would take African Americans and convince them that they were removed, their religion was forcibly removed from them in the slave trade, that they were now being asked to fight wars on behalf of the Empire. And a lot of people would walk with me and convert, or sit and talk with me and I became somewhat of a, of a – a popular preacher. One year I went to the New York City Muslim Day Parade, which is held annually and I met a group called the Islamic Thinkers Society, that’s 2003, no 2004, as the, in the summer of when we went to war in Iraq. They were an offshoot of al – Muhajiroun and had direct contact with Omar Bakri Muhammad, Anjem Choudary, and all of the al-Muhajirounists on the UK side of things. And so that gave me my first entrance into what would be considered sort of Islamism, that I had previously no affiliation with it. So I came in with a lot of creativity, was pretty articulate, had my own ideas and was embedded in what I would call ‘Omar Bakarism’. And my critique was that the way that they were doing things back then was street da’wah, they would go to like homosexual parades and like protest. But I, I found that just to be small scale, because what we noticed was that there was a transition to social media, that people were able to reduce spatial and temporal restrictions with, and I felt like we should be using the social media more. I utilise my time in that group, in 2003 to 2007, to build connections to a lot of the radical preachers, including Abdullah el-Faisal, who is a Jamaican cleric that was in prison in the UK and was about to be deported to Jamaica. So when he was released and went to Jamaica, I explained to him in one of my first phone calls with him upon his release – we had established written correspondence, that I felt like the future of radicalisation and recruitment online was, was actually online and using social media. So what we did was we started to experiment with translating these long diatribes of Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and other leaders from Al Qaeda. But we started to work with people like Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, to take a step up from al-Muhajiroun, because in the United States, we could say what they couldn’t. And so what we created was a clearing house, where because of counterterrorism laws in the UK, all of the people in Canada, the UK and Australia, and all the content that wouldn’t be viewable there, they could use my website to view it here. And we developed things like the English language jihadi magazines that became, Inspire, and Dabiq, and Rumiyah. But then what we would really do is craftily use, like YouTube videos, short segments of Abdullah el – Feisal, Jamaican language – accents, sounds like Malcolm X and Bob Marley mix, and we sort of elevated above and said things that other people wouldn’t say instead of just saying that we had an obligation to establish the Islamic State, for example, we would say, ‘I love Osama bin Laden more than I love myself’. And we also innovated, in the sense that, we filmed everything we did. So every Friday, we would go to Jummah prayer, we would criticize the imam, call him a hypocrite, watch the people grab our pamphlets and our brochures, handout lectures of Abdullah el- Feisal, but film my recruitment. And really, I guess what you could say is that it was tapping into this, what we now know about social media, is like we really are prone for visualization and to appreciate short messaging that has a lot of action orientation to it. And then with the graphic design expansion and the ability to create Photoshop, and we created an ecosystem, that in, was in Pal talk, that was like a 24/7 radio. So basically, what we created was an echo chamber. But the style was a synthesis, Revolution Muslim was basically built on that evolution of my fascination with far leftist anti-imperialism, my finding that it basically overlapped with Osama bin Laden’s, you know, war of attrition and his approach against removing the foreign enemy, and I synthesized the two, and in conjunction with a lot of other people that were working with me Abdullah el – Feisal, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Samir Khan in particular, we kind of elevated above al-Muhajiroun, sort of, cult like affiliation with Omar Bakri Muhammad, and made this, like, transnational, English language jihadist ecosystem available for all. And that was really the onset of concern. My partner now who co-founded my organization, Mitch Silber, the director of intelligence at the NYPD was literally appointed to try to figure out how to combat what we were adapting and what we were, where we were, evolving in social media. And so it really set forth this new kind of approach toward bypassing the mainstream media restrictions that started to ensue in the run up between, you know, the invasion of Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s continuing to release these lectures. They used to go on Al Jazeera, and now the Salafi jihadist things started to evolve online in social media. And we really gave it that sort of Hollywood flair if you will, we gave it that like, it was like, a Nike commercial for Jihad.


Eilish O’Gara 19:01

Well, speaking of Hollywood flair, the way in which propaganda from Islamist groups now has come on, you know, the stuff that they can produce that I’ve seen myself with, we’ve all seen snippets of it, it’s really impressive. Do you, do you see, do you see that as being, can you see any similarities in the work you produced it? And do they use your ideas now? And is that just a follow on from what you started?


Jesse Morton 19:26

So basically, the evolution of that starts with the radicalisers and recruiters moving to a position where they found themselves living amongst jihadists, and that was conducted in 2008. When Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki went public as members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And in 2010, when my organizations threatened the writers of South Park and caused global controversy for them promising to portray the Prophet Muhammad and caricature. There was a woman who started an, Everybody Draw Muhammed Facebook page, she ended up on a death list because in the middle of that controversy, The English language Jihadist template that I had developed with Samir, and Anwar and others, was taken and that template was adopted. And we saw the launch of the very first sort of English language jihadist magazine coming live from people that were embedded in al-Qaeda. So Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan released ‘Inspire’, it included a fatwah to kill anybody who portrayed the Prophet Mohammed negatively and a direct order to attack the woman who started the Everybody Draw Mohammed Facebook page, but the difference, and the distinction was, at the end of the issue, it had an article, ‘How to Build a Bomb in Mom’s Kitchen’. So now English language, rhetoric and language modelled on that sort of template and that design was connected to an ability to actually manufacture and to actually activate the learning. So this was a fundamental shift. We saw in 2011, a mass flurry of activity that kind of made us think that the war on terror was over. We killed Osama bin Laden. The Arab Spring, led us to believe there was going to be a democratisation of the Middle East. We were pulling out of Iraq. But my students didn’t go away and I got arrested two weeks after Osama bin Laden was killed. I go, and end up incarcerated in the United States. And, long story short, I started working with the ‘feds’. All my students start to appear in Raqqah, after the split between al-Qaeda, and sort of, what became ISIS, they ran to Raqqah and they established safe houses, Junaid Hussain and others who watched our radicalisation template, and they took the magazine model, and they took the stylistic template. And now they were informing and instructing and taking their skill sets, which included video production and included graphic design, and was also modelled on a lot of the key principles. And now instead of having people in the West radicalising people in the West, you have these people with this powerful narrative of a caliphate. And basically now, in taking that template for Hollywood style propaganda and releasing it in the midst of everybody loves a strong horse. And seeing this jihadism, rise again, out of his ashes, it had a broader and widespread appeal. But it is largely a derivative of an evolution in adaptation and in stylistic messaging that started with, not just myself, but we were a very small group that was critical, that the, the conflicts that occur and the splinters that occur inside of extremist movements are important, because when I had that conflict with Islamic Thinkers Society, and al-Muhajiroun, about their failure to utilise social media properly, we created like a subgroup of Jihadist that were really adamant about openly and unabashedly promoting Salafi jihadism, as connecting the English, the ability of an English language speaker, to be part of this transnational ummah. And so it is kind of a by-product of that evolution. It’s natural in some senses, but certainly the learning and the ability to adapt that and put that immediately into that ambit in, in Syria, made it grow exponentially. And then the fact that they were able to operate on the mainstream social media platforms made it resonate to 1000s of others.


Eilish O’Gara 23:07

They really cast a wide net, with particularly Islamic State, with the media machine that they were able to produce. Just a quick reminder, if you’ve got any questions, please pop them in the Q&A section and we will get you to either read them out, or I will read them out for you. It can be any kind of question you want and I will endeavour to get Jesse to answer it for you. A question I want to ask you, Jesse, and it’s one that I asked Tony last week, in two weeks ago, in the far right discussion we had. Can you remember a specific moment when you were heavily involved that, you know, a seed of doubt was planted in your head about what on earth you were doing? You know, was there ever a moment when you questioned what you were doing? And I’m sure there was and can you remember it? Can you remember where you were and how it made you feel?


Jesse Morton 23:59

Yeah, I mean, basically, there are always moments when you’re by yourself and you’re out of the network, where I think if you spend time alone and you can get yourself into a state of homeostasis, like I would, I was weird because I lived two lives. I was Jesse Morton and I was going to get a master’s degree from Columbia, running an outpatient substance abuse clinic in Brooklyn, New York, succeeding in all ways because of the stability Islam gave me as Jesse Morton. So I had duel personalities. That person knew, that Younus Abdullah Muhammad, the alter ego was, was wrong. But over time ‘Younus’ started to take over for Jesse. And by the time that happened, it took me, I was so committed that it took me having to run from the South Park scandal, right? and go to Morocco, where I lived because I knew we had broken the law. And I’m living in Morocco and unintentionally I put myself in a position where I can’t communicate with the charismatic preachers because I’m on the run, basically. And it’s Ramadan, and all of a sudden the Arab Spring breaks out. And like, in that context, I’m teaching people in Morocco that are millennial youth, basically getting them prepped to study for GMAT and GRE to survive so that they can come study in the West. And it was really those conversations in the midst of that changed context and removing me back, that, Younus Abdul Mohamad, slowly but surely started to become Jesse Morton again, in a very simplistic way to put it. And I remember that there was a release from Osama bin Laden, and the very first time I knew that, but I didn’t have the courage to really change immediately, but I knew that I was on the wrong path was, al-Qaeda’s brand was incredibly damaged. And we hadn’t heard from Osama bin Laden in like a year. And what he chooses to come out with was a propaganda piece on global warming. That was incredibly absurd, truth be told. And I don’t know if it came across as absurd, because I had left the network and was starting to develop an autonomy in thinking again, or if it was just that it was absolutely pathetic attempt to rebrand al-Qaeda. But it completely hit me. And I remember sitting and being like, wow, this guy’s actually not qualified to like lead anything that involves politics, economics, or the development of a society. That really for me, is the standout moment. And then I, you know, I didn’t know I was going to be charged yet, criminally, but I figured I was, and coming into contact with the fact that you might, kind of be, throwing away your life for a movement that’s, kind of, immature, stands out as the beginning turning point for me.


Eilish O’Gara 26:37

Yeah, and you said that when you when you left extreme, you know, when you renounced your extremist views, you did manage to retain your Islamic faith as well? Is it an ongoing battle to separate your religion from your political views? Or is it something that you’ve, you’ve struck a very fine balance on now.


Jesse Morton 27:01

I don’t even think, I don’t even think it’s a balance. It totally depends on how you understand religion. And going through this and coming back out, I have developed a capacity to make a serious distinction between religion and spirituality. I believe that we are created, I believe that there is one God, I believe that the Quran is a beautiful book, I believe, immediately, as soon as people take the texts and utilise it for their own benefit, it becomes a religion of rule following. And it is solely cantered on rule following. And I think that that’s okay because there’s components of like the prayer, and how you wash, and that leads to things like mindfulness. And I think there’s a benefit in practicing those components. As soon as it’s politicized. It’s complete hogwash. There’s no reliability, on regard to considering the hadith, or the narration authentic, but people don’t know this, like, you have to really dive into the religion, and all of the parts that call for, like, you know, the punitive punishments and the system that’s affiliated with what they’re trying to establish was 7th century type of thinking that was documented 150 years after the Prophet. It has, should have, really little legitimacy in the way that we interpret the religion today. So for me, it’s, it’s been a sort of an intellectual development, that in a sense, for me, has given me the first understanding of proper grasp of the religion. Which is that ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s about the substance and the type of person that you are, and all of that rule following and all of that legislation, when it’s always applied to others, it’s never applied to the person that’s preaching it. And a lot of that is because, behind closed doors, they’re not living up to, like what we saw, a very easy way to understand it is the Atlanta attack here in the United States. Where we thought it was a white supremacist at first because it attacked predominantly Asians, and then this component of, he was trying to eradicate sin outside of himself, because of the evangelical sort of roots, systematic thinking. That’s kind of like how it was, it was really, you know that you’re a hypocrite behind closed doors, right? but you’re advocating for this system of purity. And it’s that contradiction that as soon as you realize that, then you can either leave the religion, right? and, and think that it was in some way, or you can just go back and be humble, and pursue better understandings of the religion. And that’s the path that I’ve taken. And I’m open to, you know, the idea that Islam is not the “true religion”, like, because it allows me to think critically about my religion, and I’ve only found further affirmation of my faith, but that’s for me. So my relationship with God now, is with God. And my religion, I don’t, I agree with Western, you know, post-enlightenment development of like, religions are for individuals, and they don’t have a role in legislating because they remove freedom of individuals to think, and act and, and be themselves.


Eilish O’Gara 29:56

It’s really interesting you talk about post-enlightenment thinking and stuff, we’re having some trouble in this country at the moment with depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in schools. And obviously, we know about Samuel Paty in, in France. I’ll just be really interested, slightly off script, just be really interested to know your gauge of, you know, how you feel about all that, you know, what’s the best way forward with regards to showing pictures of the Prophet within schools? Or are we not, or how do we react to that?


Jesse Morton 30:23

Well, I wrote, I wrote a little piece on it, in The Spectator, about the latest scandal. So if people want to check that out, I’m sure they can find it. But basically, my position and my knowledge is, is that, what people that are advocating for these causes are essentially doing is manipulating something that, behind closed doors, they know is beneficial to a broader cause, as opposed to wanting to establish some sort of justice. So this recent in case in the UK is absolutely absurd, because it was being used as a teaching instrument. And people were told beforehand that they had to view it that they were going to be seeing it. I think that, that is a major betrayal of our values. And in retrospect, having threatened the writers of South Park in trying to prohibit and chill free expression, but knowing that I was doing so in a way that was strategic, like what we’re trying to be able to do is show that, you know, fear and terror works. Now we have a different period of time where we have a decline of jihadism, and we like to think in periods of decline, that the problem is going to resolve itself, and that we need to be flexible, and we develop better community relations with Muslims. And all of this is true. The problem is, is that in the UK, what you have is you have a very serious collective of influencers and individuals that because of the, I would say, some early mistakes with regards to countering violent extremism program, their early launch of Prevent, and the over reliance on what were considered moderate preachers, but really split the community in so many ways between mosques and unmosqued Muslims, is it created an opportunity for key charismatic preachers, that still believe in a caliphate, still believe in a Muslim Brotherhood type Islamism, but don’t support jihadism, simply because they think it’s against the religion, but still want to expand and develop and see the advancement of a Sharia compliant Caliphate somewhere in the world, if not in the West. And so I think it’s really a problem because we have been in so many ways, due to these false accusations about countering violent extremism, trying to investigate and overstretch scrutiny on the Muslim community. And they’ve played that. And it’s very interesting to see people who are fundamentalist in religion, ally with far leftists, who really are complete social constructivist and hate everything about our society at this point, and want to blame all of ill will and all of bad things on Western civilization in general. It’s been weird to watch the evolution of that alliance, which also occurs over here in the United States. And I think that the cancel culture type approach that we see in general society can also be applied to understanding this phenomenon. And I really do believe that if our societies don’t understand that what we have been able to innovate, and develop, and advance, with regard to the protection of individual liberties and rights, and human rights, and the spread of democracy around the world, was largely a result of our ability to get around fundamentalist thinking and totalitarian thinking that came out of the enlightenment, right? And so I really believe that it’s dangerous if we allow ourselves to look at a small handful of Islamist activists mobilising rally outside of a school, when in fact, I can see, if he’s showing the cartoons for nefarious purposes and insulting people, but to have a conversation about how do you deal with it, this is exactly what we need to have, if we’re going to see our critical thinking, individual liberty and human rights based society that the far left claims to themselves want to uphold, sustain itself. And in so many ways, I think that we do the bidding of, I will say, quite simply Osama bin Laden, who he might be dead, but he was waging a generational war against us. And he predicted it would take him 20 years to bankrupt us. And the way that he was going to do that was for forces to implode from within. And a lot of that cultural war, and civilizational war, has been fulfilled unintentionally, I think, by that sort of alliance that I mentioned, if that makes sense.


Eilish O’Gara 34:26

Yeah, it’s like you say, it’s a long war and now it’s less about specific groups, and far more about the far reaching, the way in which ideologies can spread an endure really throughout, throughout the dismantling of groups. And just a final question from me before we go, because we’ve had a lot of questions in from our, from our viewers. A final question for me with regards to your journey, is taking into account what you’ve seen on the inside and leaving, what kind of trajectory do you think Islamist extremism is on, because you’ve talked about the Atlanta attack and this seems to be this kind of tendency towards now there being lots of different ideologies potentially in the mix when a, when a, when an attack happens, you know, do you think that formal structured groups, hierarchical groups are disintegrating, but the, the ideology will endure? Or do you think, you know, we are going to see more groups forming like they have in the past?


Jesse Morton 35:24

Well there, that is one of the fundamental differences that needs to be recognized when looking at the domestic far right wing extremist threat and Islamism. Islamism and jihadism as a strand of Islamism are bound by 1400 years of scriptural, textual reference. Islamists reference many of the same scholars that Jihadists reference, the only distinction is in strategy. And so, what you have in Western radicalisation is, we always concentrate in jihadism on the micro, but you have to understand the intersection between the micro, the meso, and the macro. In periods when the macro seems to suggest that the Jihadists are back on the attack and that they’re gaining victory, that’s when the micro factors that are associated with radicalisation set in and activate a broader susceptibility amongst the pool of people that would be appropriate for radicalisation. And in the event that we see a resurrection of ISIS, a resurrection of their propaganda, and some perceived, sort of, in my day before the announcement of the caliphate, al-Shabaab established control over Mogadishu. Recruitment went exponentially through the roof, even those that travelled to Somalia went through the roof, overnight. So, like, we tend to in periods of contraction, forget, and now, to much of the pleasure of jihadists internationally, they consider COVID the final deathblow and a gift from God in this war of economic attrition. So they expect that the expenses associated with getting out of COVID in the West will ultimately lead to bankruptcy and collapse. They’re active now in Africa. And there’s a lot to be talked about for that. So at any given time, if we see a resurrection, let’s say for example, ISIS is able to mobilize an attack that rescues some of the family members from al-Roj or al-Hol camp, right, in Syria. Small things like that. A big assassination of a major political official. The stuff that’s going on in Mozambique spreading, you know, and having some connection to Arab activity in the Middle East. There is, at any given point that flashpoint can resurrect what is a coherent ideology and system, so it’s very different. That salad bar selection of grievances that we’re talking about with the far right, it doesn’t really apply to jihadist. It, the susceptibility, the variables that make people that are at risk for far right wing radicalisation, the trauma, the conspiracy theory, the sort of unemployment, all of those characteristics exist and those that are susceptible for jihadism. But when they select, they have to make a choice between Muslim Brotherhood aligned sort of non-terroristic Islamism, or Salafi jihadism. Most will go the way of non-violent activism, but that small percentage due to their own vulnerabilities, and other things, and in a period where Salafi jihadist might be perceived to be on a path to victory again, immediately it comes out of the woodwork and you’ll be dealing with 1000s and 1000s of investigations. But that’s the nature of jihadism. They quote the Quran, you know, Allah says in the Quran that ‘we give to men in terms’, sometimes you won on the battlefield, sometimes you lose, but you’re supposed to stay involved in a long fight, because for them, it’s not even about this world, the war is longer than a generational war. It’s a war that goes into eternity with regard to what goes on after. And that’s a very powerful, addictive way that you can sort of activate things in a person’s brain that is experiencing a complete lack of connectivity to human beings, needing meaning, significance and purpose. And all of a sudden, here’s this ideology, that like, even if you fail at it, you win. So it’s very, very different when it comes to the role that the ideology plays, when it comes to whether or not the ideology is a monolith. They say, ‘ah, Salafi jihadist don’t represent Islam’, right? They quote Quran and Hadith all day, and it’s very hard for moderate imams that practice Sufism, under Salafist epistemological principles, to refute what they say about the Quran. And that’s a fact that we are unwilling to accept. And so yeah, I don’t know if that gives a complete answer.


Eilish O’Gara 39:27

We have had a question actually about Sufism, which, I was just going to ask you is from Naomi Caligaro. And it says, what do you think of Sufism, in your view? Could it, could the work be harnessed to help build a bridge of peace between the West and Islamic fundamentalists?


Jesse Morton 39:46

Well, Islamic fundamentalist will never take the interpretations of the scripts in the way that Sufis tend to do, now there’s all types of Sufis too, Sufis are not a monolith. So if there’s a smart, sort of way to do it, that fits into that, this is the problem that we have when we talk about, like, countering the message of extremists. Even on the far right, you have to meet people at the epistemological realm in which they exist if you’re going to communicate with them. So if you’re going in and you’re asking fundamentalists who, Salafiyyah, has been rising throughout the Middle East in very major and significant ways, there’s nothing you can do to reverse that with a counter message that is Sufiism, it’s not going to happen. But if you’re asking people to interpret their text through a different epistemology than they’re used to, you’re only going to cement their beliefs. And that’s why we, what we saw with the utilisation of modern imams was a craze, it still is kind of a craze. However, it’s no evidence at all that the utilisation of moderate imam and Sufiism in programming, for either rehabilitation oriented countering violent extremism work, or preventative messaging – early prevention? yes, but there’s no real evidence that it works. And so we should be very careful when thinking about this. And that is the conundrum of it all, is like, can a civilization where 20 – 30% in general, have the Muslim ummah pay attention to the text literally in a manner that is a holistic political, economic, social and cultural understanding? Right? Can we develop and advance an ability to work with a system that’s built on that? And can we insert an ability for the empiricism that marked the post-enlightenment period, right? to establish itself in Salafist understandings, which I think is completely compatible. It just depends on whether or not you can remove the anti-imperialist, you know, sort of false socialistic, sort of, notions that have largely driven that, that spread and expansion.


Eilish O’Gara 41:43

Thank you for that. That’s really interesting. And we’ve had a very interesting question from Marthine Tronvoll, would you be able to just reiterate your question to Jesse, Marthine, and possibly? – very interesting.


Marthine Tronvoll-Jorgensen, 41:56

Oh, yeah. Hello, can you hear me now?



Eilish O’Gara 41:58

Yep. Perfect


Marthine Tronvoll-Jorgensen 41:59

Okay. Well, yeah, thank you so much for this opportunity. I am a Masters student from Norway and I’m studying currently, writing my thesis on rehabilitation and reintegration of jihadi terrorists in Norway. The question is more on your personal level, Jesse. But the issue that I’ve seen Norway is, regarding the decentralized reintegration process that we have in Norway, which is based on spreading out people the same way that we’ve done with migrants as well, and to prevent ghettos and parallel societies. But also, the problem with the rehabilitation programs that we have in Norway, where they are not specifically for terrorists or extremists, but more for, like the general population of criminals. And the only thing that is specific for terrorists and extremists are the mentoring program, which is only on a voluntary basis. So last year, when we had 18 inmates, only seven had suggested to them mentoring scheme. So I was wondering if you will be able to talk about your integration and rehabilitation process? And if there’s anything that were more helpful for you, in that process within, especially within rehabilitation, anything that you could pinpoint that were, kind of, more important, I guess? Thank you.


Jesse Morton 43:41

Yeah, sure, that’s a very, it could, that could be a conversation in and of itself. We are now the recipient of the very first Department of Homeland Security United States effort to develop, sort of, rehabilitation and reintegration programming for American extremist offenders. And basically, what we’re doing is we’re building, not just on my own work, but I’ve worked with about 25 reintegrating people here in the United States over the past couple of years that are coming home from prison. We’re looking at best practices with regard to recidivism reduction, we’re combining that with a multidisciplinary, or I would say, transdisciplinary review of practices that include Narrative Therapy and affiliations with trauma informed approaches, and, and all kinds of different sort of fields of practice. Because what we realize in the realm of rehabilitation and reintegration practice in programming in the space of countering violent extremism is there’s a lot of fundamental axiomatic misunderstandings that are driving the assumptions that are pushing the theories of change. And one of them is that the religion is either not referenced at all, or it’s done in a way that’s in line with coming at people at a very different epistemological basis in that which they see the world through. And that’s a fundamental problem because it’s very easy, those seven people that applied for your program for mentoring, I mean, they probably already changed already. The question is how do you get somebody who’s a committed extremist that isn’t going to, because of incarceration, and time for reflection, naturally disengaged from the movement, the concentration for those individuals should be providing them the social support so that they don’t recidivate, or return to adherence to the ideology, or the network upon their release. But basically, what we need is just fundamentally new ideas about, not the programming structure, but the programming content. So we’ve developed a 10 week, sort of course, that’s being administered to foreign terrorist fighters and family members that are still stuck in the camps. We’ve tested, we’re starting to test it in the prison system here. And it’s really based upon a blend of the spiritual and a blend of the scientific, with a keen, sort of, design and development so that you are appreciating where people that are at risk the most might, how you, might be able to build a connection with them that can do two things. Facilitate monitoring, connect to them while they’re in prison, provide them, I think there should be mandatory participation in programming upon release, we can do it with substance abuse offenders, we do it with sex offenders, we do with other avenues, but into coordinate with probation officers that can literally help people that are stuck in certain situations with particularly tailored and appropriate interventions. But that connecting contact that occurs in prison, to sustain contact with case managers and workers upon release, in conjunction with parole officers is absolutely essential. And then the substance, and the content is the question that comes into play next. When you review the substance and the content, of like, the program that Usman Khan went through when he was in the UK prison system, it was one-on-one sessions, not in a group. So, he could be two people at one time. And it was an identity based movement that didn’t talk a lot about Islam, and didn’t use Islam in a creative way to connect to empirical evidence based practices. There’s so many fundamental problems. I know that doesn’t answer your question. You can reach out to me on, on email if you want to talk more about it. But, yeah, I mean, there’s, there’s, there’s just fundamental assumptions, in my opinion, that are pushing these programs. And a lot of the people that are implementing them are just general recidivism reduction practitioners, and re-entry and reintegration programs. So this is a big problem because they have no expertise with regard to radicalisation. And that’s another component of what happened with regard to who was implementing the program that Usman Khan, and others in the UK system had been exposed to, it was designed with the inclusion of an imam, but it wasn’t implemented with anybody who had real understanding of anything, and the contract for it went to people that just provide general recidivism services, like you’re saying. So violent offender programming, you’re just throwing Jihadists in there and saying the same things that work for violent offenders probably work for Jihadist too, I don’t think is a very good idea.


Eilish O’Gara 47:52

Brilliant. Thank you. And I hope that answers your question. We’ve had a question from Mark Newman as well, particularly focusing on grassroots and, you know, in both UK and abroad as well. So Mark, do you want to go ahead with your question? Hello Mark? Okay, I’ll read out. Mark has asked, ‘How do we build up greater trust understanding at grassroots levels within faith communities, especially with regards to looking after vulnerable youth that may be more at risk of being exploited’? You know, what, what should we be doing? I know, we have the Prevent strategy here in the UK and the EU, and the US has its own tactics, but how do we go about building up a greater trust and understanding? What would have helped you from being drawn in?


Jesse Morton 48:48

So, that’s a long conversation too. But basically, you need to understand that there’s not an even distribution of risk across the country. So one of the evolutions in a study that was done by former associates of mine, Lorenzo Medina, and others at ICCT, in conjunction with program on extremism, identified that in every country, it’s not the social factors that are at risk, that, that, that show the growth of radicalisation. In fact, if you identify radicalisation hubs in every community, that is basically where the epicenter of radicalisation is. And if you think of the expansion of an extremist ideology, like a virus, then you understand and you apply epidemiological understandings to it, you have to cut things off at their hubs. And those that are at risk are in the communities that can be charted, like the majority of violence in any inner city section in the United States can be charted, not just internal to a particular metropolitan area, but the very, you know, low income housing projects that are responsible for 80% of the violence. Like so, in any network, 20%, 80% of the outputs are typically conducted by about 20% of the population. And so, the real issue is one where you have to identify the proper places to cut things off at their inflection point, and that’s where the contentious conversations are going to be held. Because what you’re going to see inside of those radicalisation hubs is not just the presence of Salafi jihadist recruiters, you’re going to see the presence of Islamists that are very much opposed to any form of integration and identity that could steer away from fundamentalist interpretations from those that live in the community. And they’ve set for the very, ‘us v them’, sort of, divide that creates obstacles. That’s the space that this hard type of work needs to done. And once you identify that, then the programming distinguishes itself between, a whether you’re operating in a space that would be considered a radicalisation hub, at a level of early prevention, and whether you’re operating in a space that’s just sort of general countrywide. You have to concentrate on the hubs and tailor, the type of, engagement focused, early intervention programming that you’re talking about, to that particular context, instead of having practices that are applied in, in the community as if there is no structure to radicalisation, as if it could occur anywhere, to anyone. And so there needs to be a distinguishment between, you know, what space you’re operating in, and a better localised understanding. And then from there, you just have to have people that truly understand the grounds. And that can work with qualified, evidence based practitioners, that can make sure that what you’re doing isn’t having counter effectual consequences. Not much that’s been done in the realm of early prevention is monitored, evaluated or tested in any way that could be considered scientifically rigorous. And from an objective, sort of my own, personal qualitative view, most of what’s done doesn’t look at second and third order impacts that are actually counter-effectual. So I think the whole realm of preventing violent extremism needs to expand, again, with some questioning about some of the fundamental assumptions that are driving the programming, and seriously, with a critical lens to ask might some of what we’re doing actually make things worse at the realm of early prevention in the long run, in particular. So I know it doesn’t answer the question again, but just broadly, abstractly, I think it’s really important to go back to the root of this whole thing that we’re trying to do that is called preventing and countering violent extremism, because the field is fundamentally flawed, in my opinion.


Eilish O’Gara 52:06

Very interesting. We’ve had a question from somebody who basically, and we had a similar, we had similar questions in the far right event as well. But what advice do you give to people that find themselves at a crossroad now? So, between going down the path of, you know, extremist thinking, or at least staying moderate? but in particular with this question is, is there any books or anything, any resources that you would guide someone to, to help them in their quest for meaning and understanding and to avoid going down that, down that path, anything in particular?


Jesse Morton 52:43

Long story short, we work with people of all different kinds of extremisms: far right, involuntary celibates, people affiliated with a smorgasbord of conspiracy theories, jihadist as well. And the number one underlying variant that you have to achieve in a de-radicalisation oriented intervention is that you have to establish new meaning. And like everything is meaning making. And once you establish an ability for people to understand that narratives and stories we tell about ourselves and that we hold dear, that for me, like the archetypes, like Malcolm X was my archetype. I didn’t really realise it, it was imprinted on me, I wanted a man of, those stories are so important. And narratives are so important. When you work with one-on-one, you want to get them in, you want to get inside the own story that they tell about themselves in their head. The only way you can do that is to talk to them through the epistemological lens that they see the world through at a first stage and then to deconstruct that. So the best way to do it, because it’s largely allows you to talk about anti-Semitism, in any fold, is Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, which is an account of what, how he overcame the struggles and how Jewish people found meaning in the Holocaust. And, and sort of stories like that. But that’s the number one book that I have found is operating like, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in a sense that it’s promoting de-radicalisation, rather than, but it takes a lot of skill and empathy, truth be told to conduct an intervention where you can establish that kind of rapport. We take a lot of shit in public, because we refuse to toe the trendy line to go far leftist, or wokeist. But that’s the reason, that contrary to these other organizations that pretend to do interventions, far right wing extremists will talk to me way quicker than they will other people. Why? Because I stay balanced. I don’t judge them. I actually exercise empathy, rather than telling people that I do. And like, it’s those conversations that lead me, further and further to conclude that if we can understand narratives, not just counter narratives, not just, but individual narratives and the role that narratives and storytelling plays in an individual’s life, and we can reconstruct their stories that they tell about themselves. That’s basically the method that I, that I utilise, and you have to understand every case of is individual. And it’s completely individualised. And it’s subject largely to context. So every case of de-radicalisation is going to largely be individualised with subject context as well, if that makes sense.


Eilish O’Gara 55:16

Yeah, so you, it’s really interesting, you talk about meaning and that’s being the most important, important part of preventing someone from becoming drawn into extremism. And we’ve just had a question in, right at the very end, which I think is quite interesting to end on. And you’ve talked about meaning, and but, it’s just looking particularly, there’s a lot of debate amongst the academic community on whether it’s a person’s identity or lack thereof, identity and purpose, or the ideology that is the overarching problem. I think I know what your answer is going to be. But I’m interested to know how you think the two react off each other.


Jesse Morton 55:53

Yeah, identity is complex. So it’s not individual identity that we’re talking about. We’re talking about social identity. And social identity, ideology is just a component of a complete culture. So we should look at jihadism and far right wing extremism, not as an ideology depart from a way of life, right? The ideology is a component of a culture, right, and it’s a counterculture, right, and in a sense, when you study it like that, then you can start to see the same impacts that cults have on their powers, particularly from amongst those that go on to merge their identity with the group. And then the other problem that we really don’t include from, you know, some lens of, of critique is, as has been emphasized by someone who has influenced me a lot, Marc Sageman has been a critic of the field of terrorism studies for a long time, and has constantly talked about the importance of recognizing the role that the state plays. And in his most recent social identity driven model, I think he gets it the most accurate for how an individual loses their identity to a group, because they begin to see themselves as soldiers for a cause due to the perceptions, or the stories that they’re being told about the way that the state or the other is intervening in creating this crisis for the group. And they want to save the group because they’ve lost themselves to the group. And like those psychological dynamics and sociological dynamics mean, that ideology is the sticky glue that holds it all together. So this weariness, or this, this, this effort to extract ideology, from the conversation, or to say it’s all ideology, in many ways, has, you know, sort of developed and evolved. But I fear, just like we say, there’s no terrorist profile, but we still seem to be looking for one, that we still are having this same argument about the role of ideology, when in fact, if we started to talk in terms of culture, and counter cultures, and cults, and the way that ideology and ideas play a role in forming the sticky glue that holds those communities together, I think we’d be able to end that argument, and move onto actually productive complex ways to use systems based theory and to expand upon what, other fields of understanding, other social phenomenon are using to identify the complexity and human decision making. I don’t see much application to that in the field of radicalisation yet, but I do think there are some people that are making progress in that direction.

Eilish O’Gara 58:08

I’m sorry, we can’t read out all the questions that everyone sent in, and thank you for sending them in.

Really positive feedback already on this. It’s been really interesting, Jesse. So I do really appreciate your time. And thank you for answering our panels questions, and my own questions. So I would basically like to sign off today, and I hope everybody enjoyed our discussion. Again, Jesse, really appreciated. If you want to rewatch this, it will be available on YouTube, under Henry Jackson Society, but otherwise, take care and thank you very much, Jesse. Thank you again.


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