Wednesday August 31, 2016

Former al-Qaeda recruiter advised 'several' Canadians drawn to radical Islam

A photo, left, of Jesse Morton in 2009, when he went by the name Younus Abdullah Muhammed. Now, Jesse Morton is a former al-Qaeda recruiter, working to counter Islamic extremism through his work as a research fellow with George Washington University.

A photo, left, of Jesse Morton in 2009, when he went by the name Younus Abdullah Muhammed. Now, Jesse Morton is a former al-Qaeda recruiter, working to counter Islamic extremism through his work as a research fellow with George Washington University. (SOURCE: YOUTUBE/CNN; GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY)

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When Jesse Morton used to recruit followers for al-Qaeda in the mid-2000s, the internet was still in its infancy. But his message of radical Islam, which he spread through his website Revolution Muslim, travelled to supporters all over the world.

But one of the most fertile grounds for extremism, Morton tells As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch, was in Canada.

"There was an enormous amount of Canadians in contact with us during our time," Morton says.

That was when Morton was still a radical Islamist, preaching with a megaphone outside what he would have at the time called "soft Islam" mosques in New York City. He also went by a different name back then: Younus Abdullah Muhammed.

Jesse Morton preaching

Jesse Morton preaching radical Islamic ideology outside 96th Street Mosque in New York City, in 2009. (SOURCE: YOUTUBE/CNN)

But Morton says those days are over. Today, he's waging a different fight: he's trying to stop as many young people as he possibly can from taking the path towards extremism. Starting this week, he'll begin his work as a fellow at George Washington University, researching radicalization.

In a wide-ranging interview with As It Happens, Morton says he knew of "several" people in Canada who travelled abroad with the intention of joining the caliphate. 

"Canada was among our big draws, particularly amongst the Somali community. That is because during that time, when he had ascended to a point of prominence, the al-Shabaab al-Qaeda offshoot in Somalia was gaining ground in Mogadishu ... and they themselves were promoting themselves as an Islamic State which was luring and drawing attention to that area," he says.

RCMP Terror 20160810

Aaron Driver leaves the Law Courts in Winnipeg, Tuesday, February 2, 2016. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Morton says he communicated with Canadians through his radical Islam website between 2006 until present.

Public Safety Ralph Goodale provided this response to some of Morton's claims.

"Just last week, we issued the 2016 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, which outlines that CSIS is aware of 180 individuals who have traveled abroad for terrorism-related purposes. We are also aware of approximately 60 returnees to Canada, some of whom have the potential to pose a significant threat to our national security.

"While we do not comment on allegations, specific threats, or operations related to national security, we can assure you that the Government of Canada is taking every step to identify terrorists and prevent their activities."

RCMP Terror Boudreau 20160813

This undated family photo provided by Christianne Boudreau shows Boudreau, left, and her son, Damian Clairmont. A former Calgary woman whose 22-year-old radicalized son was killed while fighting alongside Islamic extremists in Syria two years ago says the federal government failed both Aaron Driver and his family. (Boudreau family/Canadian Press)

Morton says his journey towards radicalization started at a young age, long before Islam came into the picture.

"As a youth, I was abused. I went to family members, the school, community members, and showed them bite marks on my legs, scars, scratches. No one intervened," he recalls. He says it made him mistrust the society around him — from his local community to the Western world at large.

As a young man, he began searching for an identity — and he found Islam, thanks to some of Malcolm X's writings. While Morton says his initial teachings of Islam were traditional, they soon veered towards a more radical path.

"On one hand, I was Jesse Morton, a social service provider, a drug counsellor, a graduate student at Columbia University. On the other side, I was Younus Abdullah Muhammed. I tried to keep those lives separate. But sometimes people would figure it out — Muslims, for example, at Columbia University who I attended Friday prayer with."

Eventually, Morton fled to Morocco and he was arrested by U.S. authorities. And that's where his road to de-radicalization began — with the help of a lot of time alone in a jail cell, and some sympathetic FBI agents.

"[One agent] asked me what I wanted to be called — Jesse Morton or Younus Abdullah Muhammed. In a knee-jerk reaction, I said I wanted to be called Jesse Morton. I think it shocked him, and me."

Today, Morton is excited to have the opportunity to research radicalization, as a way of hopefully halting the attraction of groups like ISIS. But he knows he needs to first earn the public's trust.

"I believe the vetting process I went through at George Washington University — it documented that I have totally reformed. But I know I have to prove to the public that I'm sincere."

For more on Jesse Morton's story, listen to our feature interview.