‘I believed al-Qaeda when they said 9/11 was justified… 15 years on, I work for Homeland security’
Jesse Morton during his time as Younus Abdullah Muhammed, and today.
I can recall exactly where I was on 9/11. I was a 21-year-old prisoner in Richmond, Virginia, convicted on drugs charges. I was asleep when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Someone woke me and said: “Come here, you have to look at this on the TV.”
My immediate reaction on seeing what was happening was to think, “America is going to war with the Muslims” – after which I went straight off to sleep again. It shocks me, looking back, how little I cared about the people being killed that day.
What had caused me to be so desensitised to the unfolding tragedy was that, at that time, I was under the influence of a charismatic radical preacher. Through him, I was finding a new Islamic identity that would eventually bring me, as Younus Abdullah Muhammed, into contact with Anjem Choudary, who was jailed last week in Britain for inviting others to support Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
It was a radical imam in Richmond jail who had first told me about Islamic prophecies of the end of the world. So on 9/11, as the planes smashed into the Twin Towers, resulting in the deaths of 2,996 people, I saw that those prophecies would come true. I had been radicalised to such an extent that my sympathy would be with al-Qaeda.
In the Koran and the Hadith (the compiled sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), I found an abundance of verses that I believed justified heinous violence in support of the establishment of an Islamic state for the whole world. Yet for my entire life before I became a Muslim, I had completely rejected and opposed violence.
With hindsight, I can see that my dysfunctional family background had made me vulnerable and a prime candidate for radicalisation. I was born in Pennsylvania and raised between there and New York. After my father left us for the woman he had been having an affair with, my mother took her rage out on me. But no matter how much she attacked me, I still yearned for her attention.
By the time I was 16, however, I ended up as a runaway on the streets, doing and selling drugs, which is how I came to be in Richmond prison in 2001. I was angry, and the radical imam provided me with an outlet, through Islamicism, to express my rage.
Many “experts” today believe that it is anger at the West’s foreign policy towards the Muslim world that drives the young to become jihadists; I see it differently.
For me, these youngsters, are instead articulating a pre-existing anger and animosity, whether it is to do with child abuse or trauma, a lack of integration and assimilation, or socio-economic grievances. The foreign policy grievance is simply something that allows them to release tensions held deep within them.
When I was released from Richmond prison a few years later, I moved to the next level of involvement with Islamist extremists. Through the Islamic Thinkers’ Society in New York, I came into contact with Anjem Choudary, who was beamed into our meetings from the UK to give us instruction.
‘I was living a double life’
By then, I was so committed to the ideology that al-Qaeda and others were promoting, I believed their view, which divided the world into an “in” group of Muslims and an “out” group of everyone else, to justify acts of violence and atrocities such as 9/11.
I never actually met Choudary face to face, but after I had established the Revolution Muslim website in the US in 2007, he and I would present lectures together via Skype on an online forum. I remember once talking to him about how we should advertise a forthcoming joint lecture for jihadists, and Anjem told me not to start too soon. “I need to alert the media first,” he said. He was seeking notoriety for himself.
Islam gave me the structure I craved. My high IQ then won me scholarships and, from 2007, I studied for a Masters in International Studies at Columbia University. But I was living a double life – as Jesse Morton in class, and Younus Abdullah Muhammed elsewhere. My radical views could have been recognised by the university, but weren’t. I now believe we must train teachers better to key into their students for early signs of radicalisation.
After graduating from Columbia in 2009, I wanted, as a fundamentalist, to live with my fellow Muslims and so found a university job in Saudi Arabia. But when the authorities there discovered my association with Revolution Muslim, they removed me from the country.
That experience made me even more hateful in my speech when I got back to America – in public and online. Like Choudary, I had been careful to not step over the line in what I said about jihad. But I was now so drunk on my role as a propagandist that I was no longer making rational decisions.
When, in 2010, the animated comedy series South Park depicted the Prophet Muhammad, I posted the addresses of the show’s creators online and encouraged extremists to attack them. For this, I was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in jail.
Deradicalisation for me was a process, not an event. Incarceration was one factor for change, but other things made me realise the impact on others of what I had done. My marriage had broken up under the strain of what had happened, and I was looking at never seeing my two young children again. Slowly, I was realising that my deeds had consequences, whereas previously I had assumed I had divine protection.
Effectively, I self-deradicalised. I cut myself off from anything that would pull me back towards jihadists.
Effectively, I self-deradicalised. I cut myself off from anything that would pull me back towards jihadists, but it was my decision to co-operate with the law enforcement community, providing them with intelligence, which stopped me being locked up with other terrorists and gave me the space I needed to reflect.
As a result of that co-operation, I was released after four and half years and now work as a research fellow at George Washington University, as part of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security (CCHS), looking into the causes of extremism.
After 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence under George W Bush, told America that, as long as we were capturing and killing the terrorists who were being produced in the mosques and madrassas, then we were winning the war. He failed to understand that killing one terrorist produces seven more, because the fight is with an ideology. We have been slow to learn that lesson.
Fifteen years on from 9/11, we now live in an age of free-for-all jihad – what, in my radicalised days, we called “open-source jihad”. Using social media platforms and the internet, jihadists are committed to making their ideology go viral.
Today, I work developing strategies to counter violent extremism, but terrorist organisations still have the fluidity to shape discourse on the ground. Instead of making our counter-message a reaction to their narrative, we need to start making our message the narrative that the jihadists are reacting to. Be proactive, not reactive.
The “War on Terror” will not be won unless much more work is done promoting deradicalisation of vulnerable youngsters. We must develop more mechanisms so that people who are in the process of being radicalised have avenues where they can seek assistance.
In the early stages of my radicalisation, had there been intervention programmes, had someone reached out to me, I probably could have been moderated. I wasn’t cemented at that point.
But it didn’t happen and so, on this anniversary, I look back on the past 15 years of my life as a kind of self-induced trauma that caused a lot of pain in other people’s lives, particularly the families of those who adopted the ideology I promoted, and who went on to commit heinous acts, or attempt to do so.
That is something that is never going to leave me.
As told to Peter Stanford