WASHINGTON - Once al-Qaida’s chief American propagandist, Jesse Morton is now propagandizing for peace.
In 2009, Morton, then part of a group of Muslim extremists in New York, helped launch Jihad Recollections, the first in a line of online glossy magazines that captured the imagination of many young jihadists.
With an emphasis on compelling visual presentation, the magazine came to be dubbed the Vanity Fair for jihadists, giving rise to several, more enduring iterations, including al-Qaida’s Inspire and the Islamic State’s Dabiq and Rumiyah.
In its first issue, Inspire carried the infamous article “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” In a series titled “Just Terror Tactics,” Rumiyah instructed readers on knife and vehicle attacks and hostage taking.
Now, Morton says he wants to end the legacy of a deadly cottage industry he helped spawn. Taking back his old template, Morton on Tuesday rolled out Ahul-Taqwa, a 39-page glossy magazine that rivals Dabiq and Rumiyah in production value but offers a very different vision of the Islamic State to its followers.
“What we’ve done is rather than show pictures of people killing, as if it’s a good thing, we have an image of a baby doll sitting beside a body bag showing that this is the real effect of your attack in France for example,” Morton said, referring to a 2016 truck attack that killed 84 people, including 10 children, in Nice, France.
Pick apart justifications for violence
The articles, penned mostly by Morton under an assortment of pseudonyms, cite the Quran, the hadith, and a 14th-century theologian revered by jihadists, seek to pick apart jihadi justifications for violence. But Ahul-Taqwa is not just about demolishing the negative narrative pushed out by the militants. Painting a more hopeful picture of Islam, one article describes Islamic rule in Spain as an age of “harmony and tolerance” among Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Born in Pennsylvania, Morton converted to Islam in 2000 before falling under the sway of a group of militants. In 2007, along with a fellow convert, Morton co-founded Revolution Muslim, an organization that propagandized and recruited on behalf of al-Qaida online and on the streets of New York.
But he was arrested in 2011 after he threatened the creators of the animated television sitcom "South Park" for mocking the Prophet Muhammad. While in prison, Morton became an FBI informant in exchange for leniency, ultimately serving just three years of an 11-and-a-half year sentence for terrorism-related charges.
Incarceration, Morton said, gave him time to reflect on his "mistakes" and to "reform myself."
Since leaving prison in 2015, the former jihadi has become an anti-extremism advocate.
Last year, Morton co-founded Parallel Networks, a group that works with former jihadists and other extremists. His co-founder? Mitch Silber, a former New York Police Department intelligence director who helped catch him. Ahul-Taqwa is their brainchild.
The magazine’s launch was timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate. With the Islamic State all but a shadow of its former self, the group’s once-triumphalism propaganda that catered to foreign fighters has given way to appeals to Muslims living in the West to carry out terror attacks in their countries.
That makes the timing of Morton’s initiative all the more pressing, experts say.
“You can’t cede the space to the jihadis,” said Richard LeBaron, who served as the first director of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, a federal agency created under the Obama administration, and is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
Social media efforts
Morton's is not the first counter-messaging effort. Nor is the narrative controlled by the Islamic State as it was in its heyday. While in recent years social media companies have stepped up efforts to take down extremist content, various advocacy organizations have launched counter-messaging campaigns of their own.
“I think we’re contesting it day in and day out,” said Adnan Kifayat, head of Global Security Ventures for Gen Next Foundation. “It’s definitely a different environment and Jesse is just the latest example of taking back that social media environment.”
Morton said his ultimate goal is to engage extremists in one-on-one interventions in hopes of changing their minds. But whether he succeeds where others have fallen short remains an open question. While Morton sees his jihadi bona fides as an asset, his detractors say his checkered past could make some resist his entreaties.
Kifayat said he doesn’t see Morton’s decision to flip as a liability.
“There's always going to be people who view his cooperation with law enforcement as a hurdle, but my sense is that people who fall in that camp will always find a reason not to trust a messenger,” Kifayat said.
“I like the idea of Jesse using his skills for good,” he added. “He has great linguistic skills, he obviously understands the violent jihadi mindset, he’s been through it, he knows a lot of people in that network.”
Morton is a member of Against Violent Extremism, a 500-person global network of former extremists and survivors co-founded by Gen Next, Google Ideas and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Rollout of magazine
In the week leading up to the magazine's launch, Morton and Silber conducted a novel experiment to get the word out. A small team of volunteers, using fake personas, created accounts on Facebook and Telegram, the encrypted platform frequented by jihadists.
Posing as "helpers" of the Islamic State, they announced coming launch of a new English-language magazine that would replace Dabiq and Rumiyah. A promotional video complete with a picture of a gun-toting al-Baghdadi and the group's familiar battle song was shared.
The response has been muted. While a handful welcomed the advent of a new magazine, others were more skeptical.
“The hardcore guys that are associated with somebody in Syria or Iraq, they know it’s not official,” Morton said.
In all, the team contacted at least 50 people on Facebook and at least 15 of “the biggest propagandizers in English for ISIS” on telegram, Morton said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
“Our next steps, once we take responsibility, are going to be to move slowly,” he said. “There will be no immediate engagement. This is an initiative that will take time.”