George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has made headlines after the controversial hiring of a man named Jesse Morton – known as Younus Abdullah Muhammad, when he worked as a US-based recruiter for the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.
The university's decision to hire the former extremist has understandably raised heated questions by critics across the United States. But the university is sticking by its hire, emphasizing that Mr. Morton has thoroughly reformed and that his "unique" experience makes him a valuable resource to combat terrorism, with a fuller understanding of how terrorist groups are able to radicalize recruits who could otherwise have lived perfectly normal lives.
"The understanding needed here is how to defeat the ideology of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS so they can join other hate movements in history's trash can," Corey Saylor, the director of the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview.
Morton's life shows the power of radicalization. Born in Pennsylvania to an abusive family, he sang in the choir of his grandmother's church before becoming involved in various radical groups as a way to express his frustration with his home life.
His fellow radicals became a kind of surrogate family, and provided a helpful worldview to explain the struggles he experienced as a young man, he has said.
"It gave me an outlet to have meaning, to have purpose, but it also gave me an outlet to express my rage and my frustration," he told CNN.
On a drug-related stint in prison, he met a fellow inmate whose "black and white" views pitting the Muslim world against the West set Morton on the road to radicalization, the New York Times reports. In 2007, after graduating as valedictorian from his class at Metropolitan College of New York, and earning a master's degree in international relations from Columbia University, Morton helped create Revolution Muslim, a New York-based organization that advocated the establishment of a traditionalist Islamic state and the downfall of Western imperialism.
“Revolution Muslim was a bug light, which attracted aspiring jihadists with their message,” Mitch Silber, the former director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department, told the New York Times. The group's website and activities helped radicalize a number of future extremists who would attempt terrorist plots in the West. Others joined fighters in the Middle East, including the so-called Islamic State.
"I suffer from a tremendous amount of guilt," Morton told CNN. "I have seen things that people have done and to know that I once sympathized and supported that view – it sickens me."
In 2011, Morton was jailed in connection with threats against the creators of "South Park," after the cartoon depicted the prophet Muhammad in a bear costume. But while in prison, he had a change of heart, inspired in part by texts by European Enlightenment philosophers.
"In Locke, I found tolerance and secularism," Morton told CNN. "In Rousseau's social contract, I saw the value of democracy."
During his sentence, which was eventually reduced from 11 years to less than four, he became an informant for the FBI. And now, after being freed in 2015, the reformed extremist has landed a job as a research fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at the university.
"As a research fellow at the Program on Extremism, Morton focuses on issues such as the propaganda of terrorist organizations, Islamic and jihadist ideology, countering radicalization and extremism and promoting disengagement," says the university website. "He considers this work an opportunity to repair some of the damage caused by his radicalization."
Morton's case is not unique. Reformed extremists have been hired in Europe and elsewhere as insightful voices into radicalization and the psychology at play in terrorist groups' recruitment. One such reformed extremist is Maajid Nawaz, who became a key advisor on the subject to former British Prime Minister David Cameron.
In the United States, however, there does not seem to be any known precedent for a hiring like this. This has prompted a wave of suspicion on social media that Morton's reform is not what it seems. University officials, however, strongly disagree.
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at the university, emphasized that the hiring team discussed Morton's background with the FBI, the lawyers that prosecuted Morton in the South Park case, and other leaders in the security community prior to his hiring. The university arrived at the conclusion that Morton's reform was genuine.
"I trust him," Hughes told CNN. "We did our due diligence."
[Editor's note: The photo accompanying an earlier version of this story showed the campus of the wrong university. The original version of this story misstated where Morton received his undergraduate degree. He graduated from Metropolitan College of New York.]