Jesse Curtis Morton

Jesse Curtis Morton, a.k.a. Younus Abdullah Muhammed, is a U.S. convert to Islam and former radical who became an FBI informant. As the founder of the now-defunct extremist group Revolution Muslim, Morton communicated with more than a dozen American and British individuals convicted on terror-related charges. Morton was arrested in 2011 after he and his associate Zachary Chesser urged followers to kill the writers of the television show South Park.“Statement of Facts: United States of America v. Jesse Curtis Morton, defendant,” U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, 11-15; “Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism. He was sentenced to 11.5 years in prison but was released in February 2015 after becoming an informant.“One American's journey from Long Island to al Qaeda,” CNN, accessed September 2, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/05/11/timeline.bryant.vinas/index.html. He has since become an anti-extremism advocate, co-creating the counter-radicalization non-profit organization Parallel Networks in 2017.James Taranto, “The Making—and Unmaking—of a Jihadist,” Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-makingand-unmakingof-a-jihadist-1525472372; “About Us,” Parallel Networks, accessed October 18, 2018, http://pnetworks.org/the-parallel-networks-team/.

Morton’s first reported engagement with extremists occurred in the 2000s, when Morton communicated with prominent Islamic extremists including Syrian preacher Omar Bakri Muhammad—now imprisoned in Lebanon—and British-born cleric Anjem Choudary, who was convicted of supporting ISIS in June 2016.Dominic Casciani, “Anjem Choudary's American follower,” BBC News, September 6, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37276529;
“Jesse C. Morton,” George Washington University, https://cchs.gwu.edu/jesse-c-morton.
In 2004, Morton reportedly became involved with the now-defunct Islamic Thinkers Society (ITS), a spin-off of the banned Islamist group al-Muhajiroun, founded by Bakri Mohammad and Choudary.“One American's journey from Long Island to al Qaeda,” CNN, accessed September 2, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/05/11/timeline.bryant.vinas/index.html;
“Sealed Pages of Transcript Proceedings,” Nicholas G. Garaufis, U.S.D.J., January 28, 2009, p. 31; “Zachary Chesser’s Radical Affiliations,” Start UMD, accessed September 4, 2016, https://www.start.umd.edu/sites/default/files/files/publications/research_briefs/ChesserLinkAnalysis.pdf;
“Arrest of British Islamic radicals might spur attacks against Western targets,” Trib Live, September 27, 2014, http://triblive.com/usworld/nation/6868018-74/group-islamic-british.
ITS grew out of the New York chapter of al-Muhajiroun, which Choudary previously referred to as one of the group’s “main hubs” before 2004.“American's odyssey to al Qaeda's heart,” CNN, July 31, 2009, http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/07/30/robertson.al.qaeda.american/index.html. Morton and Choudary reportedly communicated multiple times over Skype.Dominic Casciani, “Anjem Choudary's American follower,” BBC News, September 6, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37276529.

In December 2007, Morton and an Islamic convert named Yousef al-Khattab (a.k.a. Joseph Leonard Cohen) broke away from ITS to launch a group called Revolution Muslim, whose members reportedly followed the teachings of Jamaican-based cleric Abdullah Faisal. Faisal was convicted in the United Kingdom in 2003 of “soliciting to murder” those he perceived to be the enemies of Islam, including Americans, Jews, and Hindus. Nonetheless, Morton “publically stated his adherence” to Faisal’s “exhortations,” according to court documents.“Statement of Facts: United States of America v. Jesse Curtis Morton, defendant,” U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, 2. >Morton and Faisal communicated during the latter’s imprisonment in the United Kingdom. Upon Faisal’s release in May 2007, he and Morton collaborated on how to spread Faisal’s teachings, which lead to the creation of Revolution Muslim later that year. The New York Police Department (NYPD) also increased its surveillance of both ITS and Revolution Muslim at approximately the same time.Jesse Morton and Mitchell Silber, “From Revolution Muslim to Islamic State,” New America, June 4, 2018, https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/reports/revolution-muslim-islamic-state/. Today, Faisal is the leader of Authentic Tauheed, a radical organization aligned with ISIS that operates the website authentictauheed.com.Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: the State of Terror (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), 183; Authentic Tauheed website, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.authentictauheed.com/.

For years, Revolution Muslim operated several extremist online forums and websites. Through these online platforms, Morton exhorted violent jihad and praised prominent jihadist leaders and groups, including Osama bin Laden and deceased al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. He also wrote posts in support of al-Qaeda and the Taliban,“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism. as well as in support of major terrorist attacks including 9/11 and the Fort Hood shooting in 2009. Morton believed he was protected by the First Amendment, as he later revealed in his court statement.“Muslim convert Jesse Curtis Morton gets nearly 12 years for posting online threats against 'South Park' creators,” New York Daily News, June 22, 2012, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/man-faces-sentence-online-south-park-threat-article-1.1100514. In a September 2017 interview, Morton revealed that Revolution Muslim sought to “drive a wedge in the American Muslim community” by highlighting its ignorance of sharia and the caliphate “as proof of their apathy and weakness.”Jesse Morton and Mitchell Silber, “From Revolution Muslim to Islamic State,” New America, June 4, 2018, https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/reports/revolution-muslim-islamic-state/.

According to the U.S. government, Morton and Chesser advocated the murder of individuals whom they believed had insulted the Islamic prophet Muhammad.“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism. In April 2010, Morton and Chesser threatened the writers of the television show South Park after they aired an episode featuring Muhammad wearing a bear costume. The pair provided the writers’ home addresses and urged followers to “pay them a visit,” according to the FBI.“Leader of Revolution Muslim Sentenced to 138 Months for Using Internet to Solicit Murder, Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, June 22, 2012, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-sentenced-to-138-months-for-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-encourage-violent-extremism. In their online threat, Morton and Chesser wrote that they “prayed” that the writers would “end up like” Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker murdered in 2004 for a film he directed criticizing misogyny in Islam.“Clarifying the South Park Response and Calling on Others to Join in the Defense of the Prophet Muhammad,” Revolution Muslim, April 2010.

To justify the killing of the South Park writers, Morton and Chesser posted to their website videos of multiple lectures by Awlaki in which the cleric argued that those who insult Muhammad are deserving of death.“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism. They ended their threat with a quote from Osama bin Laden in which the al-Qaeda founder declared: “If there is no check in the freedom of your words, then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions.”“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism. One month later, in May 2010, Morton and Chesser used their website to solicit the murder of an artist tied to the “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day” movement.“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism. In defense of this call to violence, the pair again posted quotes by Awlaki.“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism.

Through Revolution Muslim, Morton is believed to have made connections with prominent extremists including Samir Khan, an American citizen and the creator of al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine Inspire. Khan joined al-Qaeda in October 2009 and was killed alongside Awlaki in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.Robbie Brown and Kim Severson, “2 American in Strike Waged Qaeda Media War,” New York Times, September 30, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/01/world/middleeast/samir-khan-killed-by-drone-spun-out-of-the-american-middle-class.html;
Mark Schone and Matthew Cole, “American Jihadi Samir Khan Killed With Awlaki,” ABC News, September 30, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/american-jihadi-samir-khan-killed-awlaki/story?id=14640013.
According to the court’s statement of facts on Morton, Morton authorized Khan to post extremist content on one of Muslim Revolution’s websites in early 2009. Khan also invited Morton to contribute to Khan’s online jihadist magazine Jihad Recollections, the precursor to Inspire.“Statement of Facts: United States of America v. Jesse Curtis Morton, defendant,” U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, 7.

Morton is also reported to have had links to multiple American citizens—and at least one British citizen—who were later convicted on terrorism-related charges. These individuals reportedly included Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, a former resident of New York who attended Revolution Muslim meetings and linked to the group’s website on his personal website, civiljihad.com.Jason Ryan, Pierre, Thomas, and Richard Esposito, “New York Man Guilty in ‘South Park’ Murder Threat,” ABC News, February 9, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/york-man-guilty-south-park-murder-threat/story?id=15548422;
“United States of America v. Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, also known as ‘Abdul-Qasim,’ ‘Abul-Qasim Ibn Abu Muhammad,’ ‘Sunnah10’ and ‘Abu Baheera,’ Defendant,” U.S. District Court Eastern District of New York, October 21, 2010, 7.
Morton was also reportedly in communication with Rezwan Ferdaus, a Massachusetts resident who in September 2011 was charged with plotting to attack the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol; Colleen LaRose, a woman from Pennsylvania charged in October 2009 with plotting to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks; Antonio Benjamin Martinez, a Maryland man who in December 2010 was charged with plotting to bomb a military recruitment center; and Jose Pimentel, a New York City resident who plotted to kill U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.“People of the State of New York v. Jose Pimentel a.k.a. Muhammad Yusuf,” Official Website of the City of New York, November 20, 2011, 3-4, http://www.nyc.gov/html/om/pdf/2011/jose_pimentel_complaint.pdf;
“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism.
Morton was also believed to have communicated with New Jersey men Mohamed Hamoud Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, who were arrested in June 2010 while attempting to travel to Somalia to join the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab.“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism;
“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism.
By 2012, at least 15 people involved with Revolution Muslim had reportedly engaged or attempted to engage in terrorism.Jesse Morton and Mitchell Silber, “From Revolution Muslim to Islamic State,” New America, June 4, 2018, https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/reports/revolution-muslim-islamic-state/.

The FBI began to arrest these and other associates in late 2009. In July 2010, federal agents arrested Morton’s associate Chesser for attempting to provide material support to al-Shabab.“Zachary Chesser Timeline,” Washington Post, October 27, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/metro/zac-chesser/. Four days later, Morton fled to Morocco. He worked there for an American non-profit until he was arrested on U.S. charges in May 2011.“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism;
“Statement of Facts: United States of America v. Jesse Curtis Morton, defendant,” U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, 19.
From there, Morton was extradited to the United States. On February 9, 2012, he pled guilty to conspiring to solicit murder, make threatening communications, and use the Internet to place others in fear.“Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, February 9, 2012, https://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-pleads-guilty-to-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-and-encourage-violent-extremism. Morton was sentenced to 11.5 years in prison in June 2012.“Leader of Revolution Muslim Sentenced to 138 Months for Using Internet to Solicit Murder, Encourage Violent Extremism,” FBI, June 22, 2016, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/washingtondc/press-releases/2012/leader-of-revolution-muslim-sentenced-to-138-months-for-using-internet-to-solicit-murder-encourage-violent-extremism.

In May 2013, while in prison, Morton began to use the Internet as a platform to discuss Islamic extremism. Morton published a statement on Revolution Muslim’s website “Islam Policy” concerning U.S. drone policy and Awlaki, stating that “the drone assassination of Anwar Awlaki in Yemen, an Islamic preacher with tens of thousands of ardent Western followers, has yet to be avenged but his popularity has only risen after death.”Mark Hosenball, “US Islamist Militants Jailed For Internet Threats Are Now Posting From Prison,” International Business Times, June 1, 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/islamist-militants-posting-from-prison-2013-6. In prison, Morton began reading philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Payne. He also met an FBI agent whose sincerity and love for her country impressed him. This agent showed him respect instead of demonizing him, Morton later told CNN.Elizabeth Cohen, “From terrorist to university expert: GW hires former Islamic extremist,” CNN, August 30, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/30/health/gw-hires-former-islamic-extremist/.

Morton’s initial 11.5-year prison sentence was reduced to just under four years due to his cooperation with law enforcement.“Jesse C. Morton,” George Washington University, https://cchs.gwu.edu/jesse-c-morton. He was released from prison in February 2015, though the exact circumstances of his release are not public.Elizabeth Cohen, “From terrorist to university expert: GW hires former Islamic extremist,” CNN, August 30, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/30/health/gw-hires-former-islamic-extremist/. Prosecutors reportedly sought to reduce Morton’s sentence because of his cooperation.Matt Zapotosky, “The feds billed him as a threat to American freedom. Now they’re paying him for help,” Washington Post, February 5, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/the-feds-billed-him-as-a-threat-to-american-freedom-now-theyre-paying-him-for-help/2016/02/04/32be460a-c6c5-11e5-a4aa-f25866ba0dc6_story.html?utm_term=.6d7697c02eaa.

After his release Morton continued to post extremist content online, including on authentictauheed.com. In June 2015, Morton was featured in an audio lecture on the Authentic Tauheed website titled “7 Principles of Prison.” In the lecture, Morton referred to Faisal as “our beloved Sheikh” and said that he “cannot change” his beliefs even though he still has “beliefs that the majority of non-Muslims would not agree with and the majority of Muslims probably wouldn’t agree with as well.”“(Audio) 7 Principles of Prison by Younus Abdullah Muhammad,” Authentic Tauheed, June 29, 2015, http://archive.is/Lvlvz#selection-643.1-654.0. Morton also noted that he is “on probation for three years” and that though he wanted to “express myself freely” he also didn’t “want to put myself at risk.”“(Audio) 7 Principles of Prison by Younus Abdullah Muhammad,” Authentic Tauheed, June 29, 2015, http://archive.is/Lvlvz#selection-643.1-654.0.

In August 2015, Morton posted an article on his Islam Policy website blaming the United States for various foreign policy decisions and saying that “the U.S. has learned nothing as it approaches the 14th anniversary of September 11.” Islam Policy website, accessed August 2015, http://www.islampolicy.com/2015/08/obamas-support-for-sisis.html. In December 2015, Morton described sharia (Islamic law), as “…a complete system and has to be implemented as such.”“Unity Conference,” Authentic Tauheed, December 25, 2015, http://archive.is/hYkEH.

Morton’s postings allowed him to connect with both former and new extremist acquaintances. Morton reportedly informed the FBI of these encounters and helped authorities build legal cases.Tiffany Stanley, “Only Human,” New Republic, November 15, 2017, https://newrepublic.com/article/145433/only-human-american-ex-jihadi-rebuild-life-country-once-vowed-destroy. While working as an FBI informant in 2015, Morton reportedly encountered London terrorist Khuram Butt. Morton said that he noticed Butt was active in chat rooms affiliated with the banned British Islamist network al-Muhajiroun and reported Butt to his FBI handler.Rukmini Callimach and Katrin Bennhold, “London Attackers Slipped By Despite an Avalanche of Warnings,” New York Times, June 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/06/world/europe/london-assailants-terrorism-warning-signs-fbi.html?_r=0. Butt, Rachid Redouane, and Youssef Zaghba killed seven people and wounded 48 others in an attack on London Bridge and a nearby market on June 3, 2017.“London attack: Who were the attackers?” BBC News, June 7, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-40173157. Using his Younus Abdullah alias, Morton testified in the January 2016 terrorism trial of Virginia man Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan, accused of driving a friend to the airport to join ISIS.Matt Zapotosky, “The feds billed him as a threat to American freedom. Now they’re paying him for help,” Washington Post, February 5, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/the-feds-billed-him-as-a-threat-to-american-freedom-now-theyre-paying-him-for-help/2016/02/04/32be460a-c6c5-11e5-a4aa-f25866ba0dc6_story.html?utm_term=.6d7697c02eaa. A February 2016 Washington Post article identified Morton as Abdullah, effectively ending his undercover work.Tiffany Stanley, “Only Human,” New Republic, November 15, 2017, https://newrepublic.com/article/145433/only-human-american-ex-jihadi-rebuild-life-country-once-vowed-destroy; Matt Zapotosky, “The feds billed him as a threat to American freedom. Now they’re paying him for help,” Washington Post, February 5, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/the-feds-billed-him-as-a-threat-to-american-freedom-now-theyre-paying-him-for-help/2016/02/04/32be460a-c6c5-11e5-a4aa-f25866ba0dc6_story.html?utm_term=.6d7697c02eaa.

Morton has since focused professionally on countering radical ideologies and rehabilitating extremists. George Washington University hired Morton in August 2016 as a fellow at its Program on Extremism.Rukmini Callimachi, “Once a Qaeda Recruiter, Now a Voice Against Jihad,” New York Times, August 30, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/30/us/al-qaeda-islamic-state-jihad-fbi.html. Morton described the position to CNN as an opportunity to “make amends” after realizing he was “completely wrong” in his perspective.Elizabeth Cohen, “From terrorist to university expert: GW hires former Islamic extremist,” CNN, August 30, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/30/health/gw-hires-former-islamic-extremist/. The university severed its ties with Morton after his December 28, 2016, arrest on drug and prostitution charges after allegedly answering an online ad for a prostitute. Police also found cocaine in Morton’s possession.Rachel Weiner, “Man who turned away from radical Islam arrested on drug, prostitution charges,” Washington Post, January 25, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/man-who-turned-away-from-radical-islam-arrested-on-drug-prostitution-charges/2017/01/25/70a9627e-de7a-11e6-ad42-f3375f271c9c_story.html.

Morton served 90 days in prison after his arrest. After his release, former NYPD intelligence director and CEP board member Mitchell Silber reportedly contacted Morton to ensure that he did not return to terrorism. The two began a collaboration that has included the 2017 creation of Parallel Networks, a non-profit to rehabilitate extremists.Tiffany Stanley, “Only Human,” New Republic, November 15, 2017, https://newrepublic.com/article/145433/only-human-american-ex-jihadi-rebuild-life-country-once-vowed-destroy; Jessica Donati, “NYPD Analyst Hunted al Qaeda Recruiter for Years. Now They’re a Team,” Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/former-foes-from-al-qaeda-and-new-york-police-ally-to-counter-extremism-1524826800; “About Us,” Parallel Networks, accessed October 18, 2018, http://pnetworks.org/the-parallel-networks-team/. Silber has praised the role former jihadists such as Morton can play.Jesse Morton and Mitchell Silber, “NYPD vs. Revolution Muslim: The Inside Story of the Defeat of a Local Radicalization Hub,” CTC Sentinel, April 2018, https://ctc.usma.edu/nypd-vs-revolution-muslim-inside-story-defeat-local-radicalization-hub/; James Taranto, “The Making—and Unmaking—of a Jihadist,” Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-makingand-unmakingof-a-jihadist-1525472372.

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