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Former Jihadi, Neo-Nazi Stand Up to Hate Groups

FILE - Shannon Martinez shows the Celtic cross tattoo on her leg to protesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C., Aug. 12, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Martinez)
FILE - Shannon Martinez shows the Celtic cross tattoo on her leg to protesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C., Aug. 12, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Martinez)

As a small group of "Unite the Right" white nationalists held a rally Sunday in Washington, D.C., former neo-Nazi Shannon Martinez and former jihadist Jesse Morton joined hundreds of counterprotesters.

But their attendance was to do more than condemn white supremacy. They tried to help the nationalists leave hateful groups by providing counseling and sharing the stories of their transformation from violent extremism.

Wearing a black T-shirt with white letters that said, "I am a former neo-Nazi ask me questions," Martinez told VOA she hoped direct conversations could help de-radicalize people adhering to extremist ideologies.

"I love that the counterprotesters outnumbered them," she said. "We have to show up everywhere that the white supremacists try to organize and just shut it down. We should let them know that this is not culturally acceptable, and this is not the legacy that we want to carry forth into 21st century America."

Martinez, 44, never thought she would protest a white nationalist gathering before she left the ideology behind 25 years ago. She was a white supremacist at age 16, tagging public property with swastikas and posing with Nazi signs in photographs.

Her friend Jesse Morton, a former jihadi and al-Qaida recruiter, was helping her dissuade white nationalists in the rally next to the White House on Sunday.

In an interview with VOA, Morton said Islamists and white supremacists share many similarities and are mutually reinforcing, despite holding great hostility toward each other.

"Extremists offer a sense of purpose and meaning and a cause to fight and perhaps die for," Morton told VOA, arguing that Islamists and neo-Nazis bear anti-Semitic sentiments and reject multiculturalism.

"They suck adherents in and merge individual identities with a totalitarian collective. They are essentially antiglobalist and cling to tradition when confronted with the rapid changes we have witnessed in an interconnected world over the last few decades," he added.

Conversion to Islam

Morton, a 39-year-old Pennsylvanian, converted to Islam when he was 20 and changed his name to Younus Abdullah Muhammad.

Jesse Morton, 39, is a former jihadist who converted to Islam when he was 20 and changed his name to Younus Abdullah Muhammad. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Morton)
Jesse Morton, 39, is a former jihadist who converted to Islam when he was 20 and changed his name to Younus Abdullah Muhammad. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Morton)

Over the years as a jihadist, Morton communicated with over a dozen American and British individuals convicted of terror-related charges and used his now-defunct extremist Revolution Muslim organization in New York to distribute Islamist propaganda and help recruit for al-Qaida. He urged followers to kill people whom he accused of insulting Islam, including the writers of the popular animated series South Park for depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit.

Morton was later arrested by the FBI and sentenced in 2012 to more than 11 years in prison. However, he only served three of those years due to his cooperation with law enforcement.

He has since worked to "make amends" by helping U.S. law enforcement track down jihadists and help other extremists who are seeking a way out.

Similar experience

Morton and Martinez said they shared similar experiences falling into extremism. They said traumatic experiences during their upbringing played a major role in pushing them into radical ideologies.

Martinez was a victim of sexual assault at age 14 and struggled to meet her parents' expectations. Morton ran away from home when he was 16 due to child abuse.

Martinez said what ultimately persuaded her to leave neo-Nazi ideology was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and getting support from the mother of a man with whom she had a personal relationship.

"Essentially, I was taken in by a woman who extended compassion to me when I didn't feel like I deserved it at all. When she took me in and let me live in her house, she knew my ideology, which was something she did not remotely believe in. But she didn't challenge me. By her extending that compassion and sympathy, it allowed me the space to shift and begin to look at my life," Martinez said.

The transformation from a violent jihadist was similar tor Morton. He told VOA that his de-radicalization began in confinement due to the "empathetic" treatment of a female prison agent, and after reading Malcolm X's autobiography and other enlightenment-era books in the prison library.

Western world division

Morton charged that Islamist groups are intentionally encouraging the emergence of white supremacists to create division among Western societies.

"In many ways, Revolution Muslim was responsible for giving them the fight they needed to promote this anti-Islamic view that Muslims in America were attempting to implement Sharia by force," Morton said. "We deliberately antagonized right-wing bloggers in the beginning before there was a massive rally of anti-Islamic sentiment. And we played off that to the point where we were able to introduce a symbiotic relationship between the two."

Officials and counterextremism experts recently have tried to better understand the linkage between white supremacists and Islamists and address the security threats they impose.

A German government-funded study by the Jena Institute for Democracy and Civil Society last June concluded that Islamists and right-wing extremists meet ideologically in anti-Semitism, in conspiracy myths and in the goal of homogeneous societies.

In Britain, where Islamic State and the far right have been blamed for several attacks, British counterterrorism officials have said both groups pose a great threat to the security of the country.

"[Islamic State] and the extreme right wing are more similar than they might like to think. They both exploit grievances, distort the truth and undermine the values that hold us together. And they don't hesitate to learn lessons from each other," Britain's Home Secretary Sajid Javid said last month, while announcing his country's new counterterrorism strategy.

Counterterrorism measures to address immediate extremist threats are important, but the main focus should remain on providing a platform for open dialogue, according to Morton and Martinez.

"As a Caucasian convert from the white working class, I can get my mind around the grievance, which gives me empathy to a degree that I do not demonize the right-wingers I interact with," Morton told VOA.

Martinez warned that "too much" demonizing could ultimately cause more violence by depriving would-be extremists of an open platform to disengage.

"Let's shift our thinking about this and address the people who hurt people rather than the monstrous actions. Let's try to understand how these people get to those positions, because there is almost always a story of trauma, hurt and personal violence, whether that is abuse, assault, wars, terrorism or extreme forces of racism," she said.