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  From encouraging extremism to countering it

From encouraging extremism to countering it

AFP | ANNE RENAUT
Published : Sep 16, 2016, 6:22 am IST
Updated : Sep 16, 2016, 6:22 am IST

Jesse Morton, who was once a prominent radicaliser in the West but is now a reformed man, at The George Washington University in Washington DC. (Photo: AFP)

MORTON.jpg
 MORTON.jpg

Jesse Morton, who was once a prominent radicaliser in the West but is now a reformed man, at The George Washington University in Washington DC. (Photo: AFP)

He urged extremists to kill in the name of Allah. But Jesse Morton says he’s now a different man, countering in Washington the very same ideology that brought him in the shadow of Al-Qaeda.

 

A Pennsylvania native who got out of prison just a year and a half ago and now conducts research at George Washington University, Mr Morton had a rough childhood.

His mother beat him, and no one else cared for him. He lost trust in society. He left home at the age of 16, lived on the street and sold drugs.

“I had no sense of belonging or American identity, I was seeking something, anything,” said Mr Morton, 38, recalling those early days.

But his is a redemption story: He offers a rare glimpse into the recruitment of a jihadist who eventually found his way back into mainstream society from radical Islam. Mr Morton converted to Islam when an ultraconservative Muslim friend asked him to recite a few words in Arabic — words whose meaning he did not know — during a standoff when they were surrounded by the police.

 

Those words were the shahadat, the Muslim profession of faith in which one declares “there is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet.”

“I recited them and we didn’t get in trouble (with the police) so I thought, ‘Wow, this is like magic,’” Mr Morton said. Some time later, during a stay at a prison in Richmond, Virginia, he learned to become a “real Muslim.”

“In one sense, it was indoctrination from above, in another sense, it was me seeking out something and finding... Meaning inside of this worldview,” said Mr Morton, who continues to practice his Muslim faith, although he has renounced extremism.

During his jihadist days, he frequented the Islamic Thinkers Society, a group that is an offshoot of the Al-Muhajiroun extremism that seeks to restore an Islamic caliphate. He recruited people to his cause outside mosques. “We were looking for lions,” Mr Morton recalled. He got out prison shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks — which he praised at the time — and took the name Younus Abdullah Muhammed.

 

In late 2007, he co-founded “Revolution Muslim” which would relay Al-Qaeda messages online. Among the Islamic radicals who ended up being influenced by the group was Colleen LaRose — also known as “Jihad Jane” — an American woman arrested in late 2009 as she was plotting to murder Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who was targeted for drawing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.