A University think tank’s latest hire said he wants to use his new position to repair the damage he did as an Islamist extremist and recruiter for terrorist organizations.
Jesse Morton, a former and de-radicalized al-Qaeda recruiter, joined GW’s Program on Extremism as a research fellow last month. Lorenzo Vidino, the director of the program, said in a University release that Morton will help researchers understand the process of radicalization and de-radicalization.
Morton was an al-Qaeda extremist based in New York for at least five years. He was the co-founder of the propaganda group Revolution Muslim and is best known for threatening the creators of South Park for their depictions of the prophet Muhammad in 2012. He was incarcerated on charges related to these threats and served just three years of an 11-and-a-half year sentence for cooperating with government intelligence to identify and investigate other extremists.
Morton’s experiences as an extremist prepare him for a unique research role, Vidino said.
“This is the first time the perspective of a U.S.-born former Islamic extremist will be inserted into the American arena,” Vidino said. “We expect his expertise as a reformed, former extremist to be valuable as a researcher at GW.”
Morton said in an email that his analytic perspective and experience working with federal intelligence agencies will be an asset to his work, which includes research, public relations, public commentary and fundraising.
“I hope I can deter just as many people as I recruited,” Morton said. “I have deep regret and remorse from my time as an extremist. I cannot change the past, and I can only work to rectify what I’ve done.”
Morton has a master’s degree from Columbia University in international relations, which he earned during his time as an extremist, according to a PBS interview.
Adam Deen, the head of outreach and a senior researcher at the London-based counter extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, is also a former radical. Since de-radicalizing, he has dedicated his life to countering extremism through research and education at universities and think tanks across the U.K., he said.
Experiences like his and Morton’s are essential to researching and combating radicalization, Deen said. He added that he hopes Morton’s appointment will encourage other American universities and think tanks to hire former extremists.
“If there is an individual that has gone to the depths of extremism and can come out, it shows it can be done again and again,” Deen said. “There is hope for these individuals and hope for our society.”
Although most of Morton’s work will be assisting with research, Deen said Morton will be most valuable to the program if he is not kept behind-the-scenes. Morton’s role as a visible and vocal part of the institute will help set the bar for other universities to focus on studying the ideology of extremists, an area of research he said has been overlooked, Deen said.
Deen said that while this hiring choice can draw out skeptics who don’t trust Morton, those who oppose the hire come from a “hostile place.” In his experience, Deen said most people admire the courage of extremists who have de-radicalized.
“The fact that he’s come out and he’s reformed should be celebrated,” Deen said. “No one takes this lightheartedly, coming out as a reformed extremist and criticizing extremism is something that stays with you for the rest of your life.”
Still, a handful of people questioned the University’s decision. Some critics, like recent Elliott School alumna Alora Hasson, took to social media to voice their disapproval.
Hasson tweeted that the hiring decision was “disgusting,” citing a Washington Times article that said Morton “once praised Fort Hood’s Nadal Hasan for his Nov. 5, 2009, terrorist attack on the military base.”
— Alora (@alohafromalora) August 30, 2016
“It’s disrespectful to GW’s military community to hire someone because of their experience as a terrorist, especially given his previous support of the Fort Hood attack,” Hasson said via Twitter direct message.