In the next five years, one-quarter of all those convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the U.S. will be released from prison, according to a new report from a former propagandist for radical jihadists who became a police official working in counterterrorism.
The report from Jesse Morton, dubbed the “first former jihadi,” calls for the United States to engage in deradicalization programs similar to how prisons treat addiction and other inmate issues, as a way to prevent repeat terrorism offenders.
Although U.S. courts have convicted 400 people on terrorism-related charges since the 9/11 attacks, only violent offenders will spend their lives in prison, the report finds.
Most of these prisoners—convicted of crimes such as making terrorist threats, communicating with terrorist groups, propagandizing or seeking to aid foreign jihadists—eventually will serve their sentences.
Morton understands personally how someone can become radicalized. Today, the former al-Qaeda propagandist is co-founder of Parallel Networks and research coordinator for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s Against Violent Extremism Network in North America.
Morton co-authored the new report, titled “When Terrorists Come Home,” with Mitchell Silber, former director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department. The report was sponsored by the Counter Extremism Project.
“What we propose is that the government should partner with community service organizations,” Morton said Thursday during a panel discussion at The Heritage Foundation’s headquarters on Capitol Hill.
Former jihadists can be productive as they repent, he said.
“Rather than just treat individuals with re-entry and re-integration services, the ultimate idea would be to create a pathway and avenue for them to make a positive contribution, having come full circle,” Morton said, adding:
There are cases where there is going to be a continued, cemented commitment to an ideology, that your objective and part of your treatment plan protocol is simply to minimize risk and protect the public. But there are going to be credible voices to come out of this.
The report looks at successful parallels that are used to help prison inmates transition into more productive lives after their release.
One model is “gang dropout” programs, in which prisoners extract themselves from prison gangs without facing a safety threat. Another is residential drug abuse programs.
“At a national level, if the U.S. government can provide some funding and maybe some standards, and then to some degree you’re going to have to leave it to the local districts to experiment and do it a little bit different in Minneapolis than in Eastern District [of New York],” Silber said at The Heritage Foundation event. “That might be a little bit different from the way L.A. is going to do it. That’s OK because, you know what, they are different.”
Morton said his conversion to Islam was initially a stabilizing factor in his life, helping him to beat a drug addiction and cope with abuse he suffered during his childhood.
“It gave me the first sense of stability,” he said. “I was given a structure and a code to follow and rules to abide by that gave me the first sentiment of stability and comfort that I found in my life.”
A high school dropout, Morton got a college degree and went on to teach college. But, he said, he eventually “adopted a very politicized version of Islam.”
During the 2000s, Morton began to believe that the United States was the enemy in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He co-founded and was chief propagandist for Revolution Muslim, a New York City-based group that promoted the side of al-Qaeda and the Salafi-jihadist ideology in America.
“I realize today that it was merely a projection of my own frustration and pain with a society that I felt had not protected me, and that it really had little to do with an objective choice of an ideology or an interpretation of a religion, but more to do with my own issues,” Morton said.
Morton was arrested and charged with threatening the lives of the creators of TV’s “South Park,” a politically incorrect cartoon on Comedy Central. He fled to Morocco, where he taught college.
In talks with his students, Morton said, he began to have doubts about his worldview. He eventually was captured and extradited. Because he worked with U.S. officials to thwart terrorist attacks, he served just three years of his 11-year sentence.
Silber, the former NYPD intelligence official, said numerous Americans who either fought with foreign terrorists or sought to leave the country to do so were part of the Revolution Muslim audience.
A New Yorker sentenced to prison for trying to aid al-Qaeda repented after being released, Silber said, and a Chicago man who tried to assist the al-Shabab terrorist group changed his ways after release. So success stories exist, he said, adding:
This is not just a one-off problem. … Close to a quarter of the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. are coming out. What is there for these people? We know the recidivism rate for most types of crimes isn’t zero. Terrorism is a particular type of insidious crime [where] we want the recidivism rate to be zero, but with no programming in place, that’s unlikely to happen.