George Washington University is kicking off its fall semester with a new researcher on its roster, former al Qaeda recruiter Jesse Morton. Morton will be a counterterrorism analyst at the university's Program on Extremism, part of its Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. European universities have hired former extremists to help with counter-terror efforts, but this is the first time it's happening in the United States. The decision is controversial, given the extent of Morton's past radicalization and role in recruiting many individuals who have plotted or committed atrocities. But Morton, and reformed extremists generally, are exactly what I believe the United States needs to enhance its national security efforts.
The decision comes at a time when the political conversation around national security is focused not only on "dealing" with active terrorists in one way or another, but on reckoning with the fact that the United States' actions abroad have contributed to destabilizing parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa. As we hone our understanding of what situations empower terror groups, we must also turn our attention to what conditions prime individuals for radicalization. Morton knows these intimately, and from many different angles. Deputy Director of the Program on Extremism Seamus Hughes told CNN, "We haven't figured out how to reach that individual who's going down the path of radicalization. Jesse has been in that world and got out of that world."
Morton, who was born in Pennsylvania, underwent the process of radicalization, then became a recruiter himself and guided others through that process. He shared his personal story with The New York Times, explaining that he was abused as a child and felt that society had failed to protect him. "It was not just my dysfunctional family that I couldn't trust, it was society at large," he said. "That's where the whole us-versus-them personality comes in."
According to The New York Times, Morton ran away from home at 16 and began selling drugs; he was eventually caught and imprisoned. That's where he met his first imam, who endorsed a radicalized view of Islam. Morton said that imam's version of Islam appealed to him with its clear-cut framing of good versus evil, and its promise of making Morton a part of something greater than himself. "This is perfect for me, because now the world is black and white," Morton told the publication. "And I am immediately motivated to contribute to this cause. I get out, and I completely transform my life." After Morton got out of jail, he graduated as valedictorian from the Metropolitan College of New York, and went on to get a master's degree in international studies at Columbia University. After that, he began recruiting for al Qaeda.
Morton's recruiting work afforded him an up-close analysis of the process of radicalization."What you have to do is frame their personal grievance," he told the The New York Times, "making them think that they can contribute to a broader cause." A final, critical step, Morton told The New York Times, was encouraging converts to break away from family and friends by insisting they make Islam their priority.
For Morton, deradicalizing happened when he was imprisoned again. He delved into philosophical books from the Enlightenment era, which further shook his radical beliefs, a process that began when he met many young Muslims while abroad in Morocco before his arrest, CNN reported.
These factors, along with the kindness shown to him by some officials he interacted with throughout his arrest and imprisonment, ultimately led him to turn his back on extremism. He began working as an informant for the FBI, was released from prison, and, after a year of vetting, was hired by George Washington University as a researcher.
Morton's experience gives him deep insight into the psychology of radicalization and what factors make people most vulnerable. He also has the rare ability to empathize with extremists and could serve as a role model. Though they may have been dangerous at one point, I believe Morton and other reformed extremists may offer some of our biggest hopes against increasing terrorist violence, because they can understand the problem from one of its root.