May 5, 2022
NOTE: When we published this episode a few days ago, we were unaware that Jesse had passed away back in December of 2021. We only just learned of this fact today when a listener reached out to inform us. We're saddened by this news, and we apologize for any possible confusion or hurt we may have caused by linking to his Twitter handle, email address, etc. We have removed those items from his bio but left the link to the Light Upon Light website since it contains many of Jesse's writings and information about his life's work.
What leads people to violent extremism? Is extremism a legitimate, rational response to trauma, hardship, and powerlessness? Do some holy books make it easier to justify violence than others, or are all violent movements equally capable of extracting justifications from their holy book? To what extent does recruitment to radical movements involve "brainwashing" or overriding people's beliefs versus hooking into, shaping, and strengthening their beliefs? Are cults and radical movements the same thing? What enables people to deradicalize? How can we most effectively interact with radicalized friends or family members?
Jesse Morton was once a jihadist propagandist (then known as Younes Abdullah Muhammad) who ran Revolution Muslim, a New York City-based organization active in the 2000s that connected Muslims in the west to al-Qaeda's ideology, creating English language propaganda and collaborating with the most notorious jihadist preachers of that era. He deradicalized in 2011 and has worked since to become a leading commentator, interventionist, and innovator in the prevention and countering of violent extremism, focusing especially on jihadist, far-right, and far-left extremism. Jesse was included in Foreign Policy Magazine's 2017 "Global Thinkers" listing and holds a master's in Middle East studies from Columbia University along with licensure in substance-abuse and mental health counseling. Find more info at lightuponlight.online.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Jesse Morton about radicalization, extremism, and deconversion and recovery.
SPENCER: Jesse, welcome. I'm really excited to have you here.
JESSE: I'm excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
SPENCER: I have so many questions for you that I just personally really want to know the answer to. But let's start with your story. Can you just walk us through your life story a little bit and tell us how you got to be where you are today?
JESSE: Well, I was born Jesse Morton, of course. But for a long time in my life, I went by the Islamic kunya (or nom de guerre) Younes Abdullah Muhammad. And largely the trajectory into becoming (I guess you could say) America's Al-Qaeda and then America's first former jihadist is a long one, a process, not an event. Everybody's pathway into any adverse social phenomenon is, of course, individualized, but there are patterns and milestones along the way, I think, that represent indicators. And one of the indicators that I think is most important — not just in who I became, but in the work that I do now — is the fact that, as a child, I grew up in a very abusive, dysfunctional family. My father is from a very affluent family in New Jersey. His father was set to be the youngest Supreme Court Justice in the state of New Jersey's history, descendants of people that traveled over on the Mayflower, Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. And so, by all accounts, I should have been an all-American boy. During my father's senior year of high school, his father passed away, out of nowhere. We didn't know that smoking was correlated to lung cancer back then. And he died and didn't prepare much for life insurance and things of that nature even though they were affluent. My father went through an existential crisis, a cognitive opening (if you will) for his own radicalization, and he became enthralled by the countercultural movement of that time, sort of a Jack Kerouac-inspired beatnik. He moved to a small town in Pennsylvania where affluent New Jersey kids that study pretty well typically go. So he still continued to emulate initially the plan that he had, to become a lawyer, an attorney like his father. However, he continuously gravitated towards this counterculture beatnik ideology and movement and position in his life. While there, he met a small local girl, who is my mother. She's from a very closed, working class, very small town girl, and they had a baby, and it was me. My father decided that he no longer wanted to pursue that trajectory, so he moved us out into the middle of nowhere on a farm that was 200 years old, in the middle of Pennsylvania, to grow marijuana and organic vegetables and fruit in the garden, and to live a 'natural life' (quote), completely detached from reality. I think I was born under a utopic, idealistic mentality that perpetuated through my life even until today. (I don't think it's necessarily all that dangerous.) But things didn't go as planned. So we're living in the middle of nowhere. My father starts to cheat on my mother. He's not home a lot. He becomes the owner of a construction business that largely fails. But he goes to work every day, and he leaves us alone with an abusive (there were certainly mental health complications, bipolar, I would suggest) and enraged woman who beat her children really badly: bites, spits in mouth, punches, all this type of stuff. But we're in the middle of nowhere, so there's no neighbors to hear anything. So we literally have to endure abuse 24/7. And I say all that to suggest that it developed a personality in me that was certainly traumatized. And in the realm of trauma, we talk about dissociation where a body and the mind separate. The mind comes up with ways to cope by not dealing with reality and it flees. One of the things that I adopted was the black sheep mentality or role in the family, being a savior but also being criticized as the bad child. I saved my sister from the abuse. I would constantly interfere when my mother would go to abuse her. The abuser psychologically pitted my younger brother against me, didn't beat him. So he perpetuated this idea that I was the bad child. And I lived in constant doubt that I was evil, that I was bad, but also understood inside of myself that I was good and that I was willing to sacrifice for a greater cause. Going to society was rather difficult as a result of that. So I'd have to go to elementary school and wipe spit off my sister's backpack, go into the classroom, and try to cope. But another phenomenon that happened (that perpetuated throughout my life) is that they took an IQ test in kindergarten and in first grade, and then they started sending me to the affluent side of town outside of the rural area, to where so-called rich kids went to school. I had to interact at a very young age with this understanding that there are two very different realities going on in our society, and that continued to exacerbate throughout my life, through high school, as inequality and things like that started to show themselves with globalization. Eventually, we moved to a working class neighborhood and watched factories close down and things of that nature. And I always found the elite (so to say) a little bit too pretentious. And so I took out a lot of my animosity and anger on developing a class-based mentality that further facilitated, at a very young age, an interest in far-leftist anarchist ideologies. Largely as a result of having Jack Kerouac on the bookshelf — Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, all of these 1960s countercultural books (Be Here Now, etc.) — I sort of absorbed that. But then I realize now, in retrospect, that I was angry. I felt like my society betrayed me, that it didn't interfere with abuse. I would go talk to guidance counselors, tell them I was being abused. She got away with that.
SPENCER: What would they say?
JESSE: Well, I only did it a handful of times, because it takes a lot of courage to out an abuser. And the three times that I did it, one time it was with the police. They did an investigation. It was unfounded. I was already (in the community) perceived as a black sheep, so my testimony wasn't considered valid. And typically, when I would talk about it, it would be in the middle of getting in trouble, so it looked like it was an excuse, but it wasn't. It was just that I was trying to cry out and say, I understand I'm out of control, but I need help here. The guidance counselor called my mother in and she told him that I was fighting with my brother over the weekend, that in fact, I was always abusive to my brother. And I ended up having to be screened for potential counselship with another counselor in the school. So rather than my mother getting in trouble or them doing something, I actually got labeled as somebody who needed to have help, and that really hurt.
SPENCER: So you learned you couldn't get help from others, basically.
JESSE: Yeah, it seemed like society just didn't care. It seemed like they didn't notice. It seemed like they didn't understand what I was going through, because I'm walking around with all this trauma, but I was still successful at sports. My sister almost died; she became bulimic, her stomach ate her intestines. She became risk-averse, and I became willing to just throw myself out there. And so we coped with it in different ways. And so essentially, I just became somebody who was drifting, unable to understand what I was doing, but acting out, knowing I was acting out, trying to get a hold of it, and trying to process all of this while, at the same time, being able to muster up the strength to become outgoing, an extrovert, relatively popular at school, a successful athlete. Up until the point where I started smoking marijuana, I was an all-state baseball player, all-state soccer player. I coped with it in very different ways, by becoming a perfectionist and trying to cope with it through that, but nobody really noticed. At a certain point, by the time I was 15, I couldn't make eye contact with people anymore in communication. I felt so ill about myself. I think I took a lot of complications from child abuse that it really had a lot to do with who I became, because I was constantly told throughout my life that I had all this potential, but I wasn't living up to it. And I'm thinking in my head, "Yeah, you try dealing with this stuff. I'm doing the best I can to survive." At 15 years old, I ran away, and I took to the streets, emulated my father, joined the Grateful Dead for a number of years, selling drugs on Grateful Dead parking lots, and then using the drugs that you're selling (or using the profit from the drugs that you're selling) to buy narcotics in the hood led me to addiction, and that lifestyle is very unhealthy. And the way that I first encountered Islam was my first stint in jail. I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and it set me on a course to search for the prospects that religion would provide an answer for me. I like to say now that, when I adopted Islam (eventually after that experience), I adopted the Islam of Malcolm X, not the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad.
SPENCER: Was it a gradual thing where you got more and more interested in Islam? Or was there a defining moment?
JESSE: Well, to define it is, I got out of jail. I didn't have anything to do to survive, to provide for myself. So I went right back to living this hippie lifestyle that involves traveling from concert to concert all over the country. You're off the radar, you're out of the map. You can espouse all of the far-leftist idealism. I already was anti-Israel. I was already politicized. I say that to suggest that I adopted the interpretation of Islam that coincided with my preconceived notions, and also the idea that I could become a social activist like Malcolm X, revolutionary activist, in fact. I didn't know how that would end up, but it planted a seed. I was enthralled by Malcolm's story because he was a criminal, traumatized, went through a lot as a kid, was shipped to private schools with white kids. It was like my own life. But I didn't think it was for me because he was part of this Black nationalist Nation of Islam. And then, in a certain chapter of the book, he decides to go to Mecca. And he talks about walking around the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia as part of the Hajj ritual, and being with white people, having the dreams that were imparted upon him by Elijah Muhammad (the leader of the Nation of Islam in the United States) shattered. And then he has the courage to immediately change his ideology, come back and do his own thing, and he's ultimately killed for it. So then I was like, "Wow, this religion of Islam is fascinating. But me, if I'm going to adopt something, I'm going to go all in." When I was traveling with the Grateful Dead, I learned how to play and it's really hard to do so. I taught myself how to play guitar with a book. And then I memorized how to do the solo of Jerry Garcia, for example, within two years (eight songs or something) just so that, if I go in, I go in. And with religion, I realized very soon into studying and reading about Islam, while I was still doing the same thing — hustling in parking lots, using drugs and everything — it was actually getting worse. So I started to flirt with Islam. And when I found out that Islam was kind of a continuation of all of the monotheistic traditions, then I decided that I had to read about all of religion. So I studied Christianity, I studied Judaism, I led into Buddhism, a lot of far eastern books, and being around hippies. I had access to a lot of (certainly) western interpretations of eastern religion. I developed this idea that maybe I could have my own religion, so to say. The religion that I understood was that we had to be created because it didn't make sense for me that we could have come into existence by random chance, but that most of organized religion probably got it wrong, and had evolved over time, even if prophets were real, to misinterpret and misconstrue their original teachings. Lo and behold, this is actually the teaching of Islam so it ran compatible and it intrigued my interest. One day, I'm in Philadelphia, and I'm hustling. I used to go to inner cities because I started to use cocaine and heroin. I used to spend a lot of time in downtown inner cities facilitating partygoers, corporate execs, lawyers, people that were in town for tourism to get high Saturday night, Friday night. And so what we would do is facilitate their transactions, what to say. And I find myself hustling in downtown Philadelphia with this fundamentalist Muslim. In Philadelphia, there's a large Saudi Arabian-influenced Muslim community, and it's typically in low income areas. North Philly is very much predominantly controlled by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam for the Muslim section of that community. And this individual, and many of the individuals that experience this, adopt this interpretation in jail, and then they come home and sometimes they slip back into negative behavior. So here's this guy I'm hustling with, he looks like a Muslim, his kufi on, long beard, but he's selling crack in downtown Philly. And we go uptown to serve a customer and we're coming out of the hood having copped narcotics to serve this guy downtown. And the police put the spotlights on us and, you know, "Lay down, lay down, lay down!" We didn't; we ran into what they call in Philadelphia an abandominium, hid behind some drywall, and we didn't get in trouble. And he turns to me at one point, he says, "If you just say these words, everything's gonna be okay." And he utters what they call the shahada in Islam, the declaration of faith in Arabic. He says it. I don't know what he says. It means there's only one God and Muhammad is his prophet. And we got out of trouble. So I was like, "Wow, this is like magic. And it must be destiny." He takes me to his wife's house. I wake up in the morning, they're still asleep. The Quran is on the bookshelf, I pick it up. It says, "This is a book wherein there's no doubt a guidance for people of consciousness." That's the verse I open up to, and I'm like, I need to become a Muslim. He wakes up, takes me to the mosque, I become a Muslim. Of course, I can't stay there. He tells me I gotta go, so I stow away on a Greyhound bus. And I go to Richmond, Virginia for a Trey Anastasio (the lead guitarist for Phish) concert, and I'm gonna hustle people and sell fake narcotics, fake ecstasy there. But I sold it to an undercover cop the very next day, the very day after I converted to Islam. And I ended up in Richmond city jail for about five months waiting for drugs to come back from the lab that are false. And the first thing that I met when I walked into the cell block was a Moroccan veteran of the Afghan Soviet jihad, who had established himself in the United States, but he's locked up for fighting, for assault. And he took me under his wing, taught me the religion. One day, he told me, "Now that you know how to pray in Arabic, you can be a true Muslim. Go to the shower, wash every inch of your body. When you come out, you're going to be like a baby. You're accepting Islam and all of your previous sins are forgiven, and I'm going to give you a new name." He gave me the name Younes Abdullah Muhammad. Younes is the story of Jonah in the Bible, swallowed by the whale, spit back out onto the shore, and then calls all of his people successfully to this monotheistic religion of Judaism. But the Muslims consider him a prophet as well. He told me, "You have to be like Jonah, you have to be like Younus. You have to go call your people to Islam. And Abdullah, you're just a slave of Allah. You're nothing. You have to do what God has designed and given you this life to do, and that is to follow Muhammad, the last and final messenger. And he's given you everything." In his interpretation or his explanation of the Quran, we have everything from how to use the bathroom, to how to fight war. In the West, we don't have concepts of war being compatible with religion much. It was a new concept to me. But I saw it live and in person when, one day we're calling to the morning prayer, and we woke a Christian — African American, a very big dude — up. And he comes and stands in front of the prayer because we're disrupting his sleep. The Moroccan tries to move him to the side. And then when he didn't move, he stood up and he fought him. So he went from prayer to God to fighting. Now I don't understand that. So in conversations thereafter, he explained to me that, no, we have to follow Islam literally. And the Prophet Muhammed is recorded to have said that, if a person walks in front of the prayer, gently move them to the right with your right hand, and if they don't move, then stand up and fight them for verily, they are a devil. And I was like, "Whoa. Seriously." Then he told me about this Islamic State or the Sharia that has been implemented by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the fact that the West would never be able to accept it, and that we would be entering into a phase where there would be war. And he told me this is coincident to the end of days prophecy. The Prophet Muhammad also said that a black flag would be raised from Khorasan — which is interpreted by Islamists and jihadists as Afghanistan — and it will not be stopped until it reaches Jerusalem. So this fed into, and is the reason why I mentioned, my anti-Israeli stance. It allowed me to see a vision for myself as becoming Malcolm. Little could I know that, when I was released from this facility, I would live a life of complete alteration — dropped drugs, dropped alcohol, dropped cigarettes, started to pray five times a day, fasted regularly during the week — became a really serious fundamentalist, so to say, but also that 9/11 would happen. So when George Bush said, "You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists," tapping back into that early childhood trauma and not feeling like I was connected to my society, I felt like I was faced with a choice. And I started to read and dive into more and more of Al-Qaeda's ideology. I didn't know much about them up until 9/11 happened. Ultimately, over time, I decided that I was going to be a covert sympathizer. So I started preaching against the Iraq war on 125th Street in Harlem, New York. And I was very good at calling African Americans to oppose the war, but also to convert to Islam as their true religion that was taken from them when they were brought here in the slave trade. And it was a very effective pitch and spiel, and it allowed me to brush up on my politics and to gain more knowledge of Islam. And then one day I found adherents and followers of Osama bin Laden, and went to the annual Muslim Day Parade in New York City, and found the group called the Islamic Thinkers Society, which was a US offshoot of the most prominent radicalization outfit in the United Kingdom called Al-Muhajiroun. And from there, long story short, I gravitated to become a preacher, and it was like 'we have one of your own.' We have an American White guy with blue eyes, who knows the religion and who can preach against your wars, and it was really a valuable asset. I had problems with them because I thought they weren't tapping into the internet. And so eventually, I started an organization with some of the most charismatic preachers of the era, a Jamaican cleric in particular, who was like the Bob Marley Osama bin Laden-supporter, Jamaican accent, fiery rhetoric, revolutionary speech, very much appealable to the Western mentality. And the innovation that we gave is one that changed the landscape of radicalization in general. We basically made Al-Qaeda's diatribes from caves in Waziristan in Pakistan palatable for a Western audience. It was like jihadism on Madison Avenue or in Hollywood.
SPENCER: Who was the group that you were mainly targeting?
JESSE: Well, we called ourselves Revolution Muslim. So it was an ability to tap into the progressive anti-war sentiment of the era, but the American Muslim community and Western English speakers. We wanted to go against this notion that American Muslims were exceptional, that they couldn't be radicalized because they attained higher levels of education and higher levels of employment, and that they were better assimilated. We knew that the ideology of jihadism was as appealing to the rich as it was to the poor, that it didn't really matter. It was about a formulation of an identity. We didn't see ourselves as manipulating or brainwashing people. We saw ourselves as working on behalf of the truth. The impact that we had revolutionized the online arena because other organizations were unable to claim actual adherents to Al-Qaeda, because in Europe, they had counter-terror legislation that prevented that. But we're living in the United States, protected by the First Amendment, unlike any other country on the face of the earth. And so we're able to go out in the streets and say we love Osama bin Laden more than we love ourselves, Al-Qaeda is coming for you, you're gonna lose the war on terror, and just engage in this rhetoric. But we would go into the New York city landscape and shoot this stuff in downtown Times Square, and then upload it to YouTube, where it would get hundreds of thousands of views. So we were the first people to tap into social media. And by the time we were done, long story short, we had radicalized God knows how many, but we're affiliated with inspiring over 15 different terrorist plots around the world. And we really left a nefarious mark that was brought to its climax or zenith when we threatened the writers of "South Park" for portraying the Prophet Muhammed in a cartoon and caused worldwide controversy.
SPENCER: It's an incredible story. I just want to dig in a little bit into the mindset you had at that point. What was your view on America, Western people in general?
JESSE: Even before 9/11, I had really gravitated towards, in particular, the philosophy of Noam Chomsky, but I wasn't violent. But Noam Chomsky set me off on a course to read Bakunin and Marx and really far-leftist anarchist thinkers in particular. And so I found that capitalism and imperialism as embodied by the US-led order, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was something that was unfolding during my lifetime...I remember coming home from school and seeing when we first went to Iraq, swarmin' Norman Schwarzkopf giving us updates on the Iraq War. And then I remember looking at — not on the internet, but just in the press, I caught, papers that were...remember the Highway of Death, where we had bombed (most people don't remember it), but we had bombed caravans of people, of Iraqis that were allegedly leaving the invasion of Kuwait, and most of America. We even had trading cards for the first Gulf War that I would see when I would go buy baseball cards and stuff. And for most of America, it was like patriotism. But for me, this is clearly imperialism, and sick and disgusting glorification of war, arrogance, and hubris. So I already had that. I realize, in retrospect, it was only because society failed to include me, and failed to see my abuse, which they should not be held accountable for. It was just anger and animosity of my own subjective personal experience. I think that's really true for a lot of radicals and a lot of extremists. It took my own work on myself and deradicalization to realize that, because that's one of the biggest hindrances to overcome. You're convinced that you rationally believe that your own country is the most tyrannical power on earth. When you are radicalized, you see the world through blacks and whites. Simplistic narratives resonate, particularly when you're traumatized, because it gives certainty where there was none, gives you a sense of meaning and significance. And it's like, it's not your fault for being a failure. It's their fault. It relinquished this agency and responsibility, and it's disempowering. But you think it's empowering because you think you're working to build a utopia on Earth. So it's full of contradictions, and it's full of just further traumatization. That's why it appeals to people that like drama, that are traumatized and have anger. And so I had to realize that it wasn't a rational understanding and, with nuance, I have come to see the world in a very different way. But yeah, I felt betrayed, but I could have articulated exactly why I was opposed to the United States in the same way that one could take the work of social critics like Noam Chomsky and misunderstand them. He has much to say that's good about the US in his critique. You miss those parts because you want to find ammunition, to blame somebody outside of yourself, to blame the system.
SPENCER: Is it fair to say that you had this feeling of anger towards the US because it had not taken you out of your abusive situation? That made these ideologies more appealing — basically blame the US — and then the radical Islamic work that you got swept into appealed to that side of your perspective?
JESSE: For sure. So what I realize now (and I'll try to keep this short) is I was addicted to narcotics, and it was getting worse and worse, up until the point where I accepted Islam and then, in my opinion, kind of divinely ended up in jail as part of my path where I was radicalized. Islam gave me stability but the ideology and the interpretation of Islam I adopted was merely a replacement. A lot of addicts will substitute. They'll be addicted to cocaine, and then they'll argue in their own brain that, "Well, I can control heroin. So cocaine messed up my life, but I can function on heroin," and then heroin messes up their life. Well, my opiate was the ideology; it did the same thing. It numbed my pain. It gave me something outside of myself that I could learn, that I could belong to, that I could put forth energy towards. But what did it prevent me from doing? Healing my own trauma, healing my own mental health concerns, healing my own pain. Islam, in so many ways, gave me stability as well because I went to school. I'm a rare exception in the radicalized milieu, in that, while I was doing all the radicalization and recruitment, I was actually growing as an individual, too. So I went, I got a scholarship, got a bachelor's degree, ended up at Columbia with a master's degree in nonprofit management and Middle East Studies, ran an outpatient substance abuse clinic in Boston (New York eventually), for eight years. So I have all of this success that the stability that Islam gave me, but the ideology was still an opiate. So when you remove the ideology, then I went back to having to deal with all of that trauma and that abuse, and that's where I'm at today, which is the transformative part of the story. But yeah, the ideology functions like an opiate. And for people that are hurt, and people that aren't succeeding, and they have no significance, they have no meaning. There's legitimate grievances. Most of the people that become far-right wing extremists would say the same thing, like the war on terror bankrupted their economies, globalization sent all the jobs overseas. It's not their fault that they're unable to climb out of the working class, and that they're not recognized for their intelligence and their greatness, because there's some evil cabal of Jews and some conspiracy against White people trying to be replaced. And so it's very much the same phenomenon. But basically, I think extremist ideologies function as opiates for individual adherents, and we've done a lot to take from that awareness with regard to what we do now, pulling people out of those movements.
SPENCER: I definitely want to dig into that and how you approach pulling people out of extremism. But first diving a bit more into the psychology of it, it sounds like one of the things that religion did for you is it actually got you out of this rut of doing drugs and living in this transient lifestyle. Do you think that you attributed those benefits to religion?
JESSE: I just think I needed structure and rules. For a traumatized individual, rule-following is very good and refreshing because, when you're traumatized — particularly if it was a result of what we call complex trauma, substantial experience of adverse childhood experiences — we know that the brain functions in a very different space. Your prefrontal cortex, your frontal cortex makes your rational decisions. Most people — if they're balanced, and they're regulated — process external stimulation in the prefrontal cortex. But for traumatized people, they process in a part of the brain called the amygdala. And the amygdala is the part of our brain that is responsible for survival. And it's responsible for reacting to threats. So you're constantly living in a space of threat. And there are three ways to respond to threats: Fight, Flight, Freeze. And so I essentially lived in that space. Now, when you're functioning from that space, we now know, scientifically speaking, that there is a very serious disconnect between the amygdala, which usually says, "Okay, I'm safe," translates information into the frontal cortex where it can be processed rationally. What people that are traumatized tend to do is — that's why conspiracy theories resonate with them so much — if they get stability from false news or from misinformation or a false, very simplistic rule-following sort of literalist ideology, they will then transition that where it's cemented in the frontal cortex as an absolute truth. And what that does for them is, it makes them feel less scared, less under attack. Now I have something to belong to. I've been by myself, coping my whole life. Here's a community. Here's an idea that basically represents a culture, and it has rules. So five times prayer, I'm not allowed to use alcohol, not allowed to use drugs — it was the belief and that that got me clean — fasting a month a year during Ramadan, and having self-restraint and control. For somebody who didn't have access to cognitive behavioral therapy, or was opposed to the idea of even going to therapy, it functioned in the same manner. However, without proper guidance, the trauma still interfered with the other part of the religious affiliation that I adopted.
SPENCER: So are you religious at all now?
JESSE: I make a serious distinction between religion and spirituality. I still have not come to believe that we could have possibly gotten here by random chance. I cannot, for the life of me, get around things, looking at the universe around us. And I'm not quite an agnostic, because I still do believe that, if there is in fact a god, it has to be a monotheistic one. So I'd still consider myself a Muslim in that sense. Am I a good Muslim by the standards of the religion? Probably not. I drink sometimes, definitely don't pray five times a day. Do I still pray? Yeah. Do I find that it gives me stability, that it gives me inspiration? Yeah. Part of making amends for me is continuing to explore this idea that, possibly, it happened for a reason. There might be a deeper divine reason for your life. And so that's inspiring. It makes me feel like less of a failure for the long time in my life that I spent unsuccessful. And even if religion is false, it gives that to you, right? That's a benefit. But yeah, I think that human beings seem to me to be very fundamentally distinct from the rest of creation and the fact that we have consciousness, and tapping into consciousness and spirituality, I do believe that we do certainly have some divine purpose and that there is divinity around us, although I would never say my religion is superior over another, or that I even hold religion. I don't even really like to talk about it unless it's beneficial, working with an evangelical extremist, or fundamentalist jihadist, or designing programs. We design a lot of programs that need to include cultural sensitivity. But religion itself scares me a little bit. Spirituality seems to be a predominant factor in my life. I often find myself checking in, saying, "Are you doing this grant proposal or this project because you want to get paid? Or are you doing it because it's part of what you believe in?" And I'm able to overcome that, and I think that's important in a line of work that's supposed to be doing social good. So it's really valuable to be spiritual. It was dangerous for me to be religious.
SPENCER: I think it's very difficult for people in the US to relate to the viewpoint of someone who's sympathetic to Al-Qaeda or a member of Al-Qaeda. Could you give us some insight on what the world is like to someone who believes in these ideas? How do they view your typical American and so on?
JESSE: Well, first of all, the Quranic dissection of the world is easy for Islamists to politicize the religion to transfer into a very simplistic worldview. The first part is solidifying an identity that adheres to literalism, in the religion. The Muslim world is fundamentally different from most of the rest of the world in the sense that the religion is really influential on formulation of identity, and people take the religion as the absolute truth. Their religion is true. Any Muslim will tell you that, hands down, they believe they have the truth. There are no truths; there's the truth. So once you adopt that, or once you believe in that, and you take the religion seriously, then anybody who doesn't accept the message has become a kafir. This is a term that's thrown around a lot. Kafir is not as serious as people think it is. It just means that their heart, their natural inclination to worship God, has been buried by darkness. And so the way that Muslims view American society is that, because it's all about the life of this world and materialism — which again, is an oversimplification completely — because it's all materialistic, it's consumerist, it's driven by pop culture and things that go against the Islamic tenets (the promotion of homosexuality, showing the woman's body), it's very easy to cement hatred for the American way of life. And so what Islamists want to do is formulate an identity that is coincident to this ultimate objective because, for people that politicize the religion like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, it's not about personal relationship with God. It's about this idea that, if you don't tear down the world that is not living according to Islamic tenets, to build some system in its place, basically authoritarianism or expansionary fascism, it's very much compatible with the same thing. The German Nazis thought that they were nihilist, but not in the sense that it was all about tearing down things. It was about tearing down everything in order to build something back up. That's the same way Al-Qaeda and ISIS view the world. They look at themselves as promised (in prophecy) ultimate victory, and that necessitating violence in order to achieve that. And at the same time, in order to do that, you have to dehumanize those that you're waging war against. And so, American culture and American individuals are portrayed as not knowing why they're alive, living only to work and to acquire goods, but not remembering God. And for someone who feels like, again, tapping into the subconscious realm, that was my grievance, I found that I was thinking about deeper things, complex thoughts, reading, educating myself, while the people around me seemed to be trying to accumulate things, and largely unable to see that. And it's not their fault. I held them responsible to see into my heart and my soul, and to realize that I was in pain, and to show me care and concern. I didn't do anything to facilitate that, to raise awareness of that, to have private conversations with other people, to tell them I need love, because this is what's going on. I didn't know how to do that. I kept to myself, and I kept the secret, so to say, and walked around with that pain, and then blamed them for it. But that's the kind of people that are going to adopt the view, people whose needs are not being met. And then it's fulfilled in a narrative that is appealing because it says, "It's not your fault. It's because they don't believe in God. It's because they don't believe in Islam. It's because they don't accept the truth." And then from there, you get connected to a network that, oh, wow, I'm surrounded by people that agree with me, that actually love me, that actually care about me. So it's needs, narrative, network, and then it becomes groupthink. You lose your own ability to think and you become part of a cult.
SPENCER: So the work that you did, where you were spreading this ideology, I imagine that you must have known that it led to people being hurt or killed. And I'm wondering, how did you process that at the time?
JESSE: Well, it's because the idea is that they are killing us overseas, people I can't see, a narrative that is completely unnuanced.
SPENCER: So is it revenge? Is that how you viewed it?
JESSE: It's largely retaliation. See, part of extremism is that the world is black and white. There's us and there's them. So the us-them bias sets in, but it sets in as that groupthink process where you adopt the mentality of...and remember, Al-Qaeda and ISIS clearly call for the killing of civilians. And of course, at first, I'm opposed to this. It's not natural to even believe in that, but the indoctrination and the engagement in the network makes you lose yourself. And for me, I was a true believer. Plus, I'm a convert, so I want to show that I am willing to sacrifice, that I am a true believer, with the gift of gab and a lot of creativity. So for me, it was a gradual process to actually believe in that. But I guess that you could say that you dehumanized those people that could be harmed. So for you, yes, they were human beings, but because they were unwilling to talk about the innocent civilians that they were killing in the war on terror, it was justified. It was revenge. But what is that also from a subconscious realm? That is my grievance, manifesting itself at a continued level of frustration. It was easy for me to dehumanize my own people, because I felt like my tribe, so to say, had betrayed me, again, blaming them for my own shortcomings and inability to process my trauma. Millions of people are abused in the world every year. They don't all become Al-Qaeda recruiters.
SPENCER: Is the view that people in America are fundamentally evil and that's why they're not deserving of empathy is why it's okay to kill them? Or is it something different than that?
JESSE: There's a word in Islam that they use called Jahiliyyah, that they're ignorant. And so in the Middle East in general, not even amongst fundamentalists, Americans are portrayed as stupid, fat and just searching for... They'll say things like, "Yeah, in America, if you go over to somebody's house, they don't even offer you hospitality." It's not true, but they think that it's true. They think in America, it's so individualist that nobody gets together and is sharing in kind. That's just the mentality that people have about us, particularly in the aftermath of the war on terror. Anybody in the Middle East that's interacted with an American, however, will tell you, "Wow, the people are great. The government sucks." So essentially, it's not that they're evil, it's that they're ignorant, and that they don't understand what their government does overseas because the information is kept from them, because they're only taught on their news broadcast what's going on in America. Unlike the rest of the world, they don't speak multiple languages, they don't pay attention to global affairs. That's the common portrayal inside of both the jihadist and the political Islamist Muslim brotherhood-type crowd and in the general mosque community. Even Muslims that generally live in America (and people say that they're assimilated, they are to some degree), but still behind closed doors, they still hold themselves as fundamentally different in their identity than the Americans who are still portrayed in mythical ways as being reductionist, even though American society produces all of the great innovations and is creative in so many ways. We wouldn't be living in the world we're living in if it weren't for the Declaration of Independence and the freedoms that arise from that. But you want to preserve your own identity, so there's a lot of animosity there, too. And it is prevalent in the culture. I say that to suggest that it's just accurate; a lot of people don't like to say it but there's a lot of anti-Americanism in the mosque Muslim community in general. Now, people that are secular — that don't go to the mosque, that are originally from Muslim-majority countries or whatnot, grew up with a culture of Islam — totally reject that and are some of the biggest proponents of the American system and American way of life. But yeah, it's easy to adopt that. 'It's not that they're evil, it's that they're ignorant,' is the predominant notion.
SPENCER: I think I still don't understand this though. Because if I thought someone was ignorant, I would still feel like it was horrendous to murder that person. So how do you go from 'they're ignorant' to setting off a bomb in a store and 'blowing someone up is okay'?
JESSE: Yeah, the indoctrination process is largely a series of religious teachings. There's narrations — it takes a long time to get into — but they'll misconstrue the religion. So God says in the Quran, fight those who fight you but do not transgress the boundaries. And the Prophet Muhammad has clearly stated that, even if we are in a legitimate state of jihad, then we don't kill civilians, don't kill women. We only fight combatants. Now, in order to get around that, they manipulate the religion skillfully. So they'll say that the prophets...there's a narration, for example, where they attacked a tribe at night, that was waging war against them. And the companions of the Prophet, they turned to the Prophet and they say, "Oh, Prophet of Allah, if we attack at night, will we not kill women and children and violate the law?" And he says, "Are they not from amongst them?" Now, in reality, when you really study the religion, you realize how fabricated this narration is, but they'll use it. So that's one example of how they draw an analogy. And so then they point to the verses of 'eye for an eye, tooth for tooth,' which, in the Islamic religion, is retaliation for an individual's offense against another. Like if you get caught for committing murder, then it's up to the family to say whether or not you yourself as the murderer are killed. They can forgive you or they can request that you yourself... Capital punishment is a very real phenomenon. Eye for an eye is a very real phenomenon. They'll apply that to the collective. And so they frame the narrative as they kill you by arming the Israeli state. Bin Laden's basic narrative when we invaded Iraq is a perfect example. He said, "You guys say that we fight you for your democracy and your human rights. That's wrong. We fight you because of what you do to us in the Middle East. You arm the Israeli aggressor so that it can oppress Palestinians, and you say nothing about it. You gave sanctions to the Iraqi nation-state and you killed hundreds of thousands of children according to the United Nations, because you wouldn't let Saddam Hussein have things that he could have cleaned his drinking water with. You care nothing about us. And then you prop up the Arab authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and House of Saud, which plunder our wealth, and make it impossible for us to live by our true religion. Therefore, you are accountable. And not only that, but your civilians are accountable on the eye-for-eye principle. If you're going to kill us, we're going to kill you until you stop killing us." That was the underlying belief of 9/11. Well, that didn't turn out so well. However, that is the way that that process of indoctrination starts. And so then there's these Islamic arguments, and they get much more sophisticated. And they go into many more false analogies that, once you really learn from a scholar, you realize how faulty they are. But they use the religion in a skillful way to tap into the political part of the argument, which is, 'the Americans are an imperialist power, we have to defeat them so that we can take back control over the Middle East, reestablish a caliphate, and make a utopia on Earth.' So again, just like other extremist entities throughout history, the end justifies the means as well. And it can really make sense to you, like "Well, that makes sense." They're dropping bombs and killing civilians. Anytime something happens as a result of casualty of war, the jihadists bump it repetitively. I did this for years. Controversy in Guantanamo? Write an article about it. Talk about it in a lecture. Bring any pictures that you have of Abu Ghraib. Show it to them. Promote it, promote it, promote it. Basically, it has an impact on your soul because you're absorbing all this stuff. But what it is doing is it's constantly dehumanizing the (quote unquote) "enemy." And I only say that there's a correlation to that in the general Western mosque community because you're already predisposed, in a sense. When the general sentiment is that people are ignorant, and then you run into an ideology that interprets what the general American Muslim community or solution would be: we'll tell them about Islam. Be a good neighbor. Be nice. Make sure that you yourself have an obligation to represent Islam in a positive way because, if you're going to hold them accountable for being ignorant, then ignorance can only be eradicated with education. But for the jihadist, these people will never be educated, they'll never accept the truth. Therefore, in order to obtain our objective so that we can liberate our people, you have to attack them. And I know that most people would find that absolutely absurd to believe in. But when you're angry, when you're traumatized, when you are surrounded by 24/7 propaganda, and you start to absorb and believe that this group cares about you, that these people really care about who you are, and about what you have to contribute to the movement, over time, it can slowly make sense. And it definitely does take time because nobody's gonna adopt that right away.
SPENCER: So what is the mental state of a suicide bomber? Are they feeling anger? Is it like a righteous anger? Or is it a feeling of, I'm going to do this for the reward in paradise afterwards? Or is it just, I don't want to blow these people up, but this has to be done for the greater cause?
JESSE: Well, I think for every case, it's probably different. We don't have a whole lot of research in the area. But remember how I'm telling you about projected anger, and realizing (after I deradicalized) that my interpretation of the American society was largely a projection of feeling betrayed. So I think in their minds, they're probably acting on the ideology. They probably think they're doing it for rational reasons. But in actuality, it has largely to do with a false interpretation of the world that has been cemented upon them, and a lot of frustration. Nobody's gonna throw away their life as a suicide bomber if they're successful. Osama bin Laden wouldn't go do it, right? He had better things to do. But he would lead another person off to do it, and tell the 19 hijackers to do it. Well, when you look at their life, and when you look at their difficulties and their anger and their animosity, each one of them has a very different trajectory. But there's one common denominator, that they all were largely unsuccessful, but were supposed to be successful. They were born into a space where they had opportunities. They didn't take advantage of those opportunities, and they had a lot of anger and resentment. It ultimately ended them in Afghanistan, and I'm sure they thought that they were acting 100% in the name of God, but it probably had a lot more to do with their projected animosity that was based upon a false unnuanced worldview. That black and white can really be dangerous.
SPENCER: You mentioned that you now view these as perversions of the Quran, like these are misinterpretations of the Quran. Some people have argued — and there's been a lot of debate about this — is there something about the Quran that makes it easier to justify these kinds of acts? Because if you look at the Bible (the Christian Bible), there are many atrocities that occur in the Bible. If you look at Buddhism, which people generally think is an incredibly peaceful religion, you can find people committing atrocities in the name of Buddhism. Okay, maybe it's less common, but you can find that in the world. I'm wondering, do you see anything different about Islam? Or do you think it really is just, whatever ideologies happen to build around a religious book, they can be perverted in arbitrary ways?
JESSE: Both. I don't think the problem is the Quran; the Quran represents itself as a series of principles. It's not rules. The rules are explained in what they call the Hadith. And Muslims take the Hadith, which are the narrations of the Prophet Muhammad, and it is a fascinating science, it has some historical validity. But there's a lot of Hadith that are political in nature. And the Hadith were written down and recorded 200 years after the Prophet Muhammad. So Muslims take them as part of the religion and to question them is problematic. When you look at the Hadith that the jihadists use, when you look at the Hadith that the fundamentalists use, and you eradicate this belief that there is divinity here and you study it as a science, you realize that the notion of offensive jihad, for example — aggressive jihad for expansionary Islam — doesn't exist in the Quran. And when you look at the Hadith, there's only one narration that justifies it and it's faulty. When you look at all of the books of Hadith in Islam, 80% of the texts are about how to pray, how to wash yourself, how to fast, the overwhelming majority. 20% of them have to do with the religious Sharia system, some of which don't even exist in the Quran. The Quran does not say to kill the adulterer. The Hadith says to stone the adulterer; it doesn't exist in the Quran. It is the Hadith that I think are very problematic, but they're considered so sacred and sacrosanct, that for me to say this — and for a Muslim scholar to hear me say what I just said to you — is enough to declare me an apostate from the most mainstream scholars in Islam. To question the Hadith and the validity of the Hadith, and to suggest that the Hadith that I just mentioned might be invalid, would be tantamount to apostasy. I don't think other religions in the 21st century tend to operate that way unless they are the extremist sects that belong to all religions. But this is still the predominant view. Large portions of the Muslim world believe that apostates should be killed. It is different because Muslims still take their religion so seriously. And the Quran is very powerful. It has a lot of validity to say that it could be the speech of God. It has scientific compatibility. It's memorized by millions of people. It's an amazing phenomenon. But it is the interpretations that are attached themselves to the narrations of the Prophet Muhammad, that are attributed to him, but are supposed to explain the Quran. Like you wouldn't know how to pray because the Quran doesn't tell you how to pray. It tells you to pray, but then the Hadith tells you how to pray. I think that that is a demarcating characteristic of Islam. That and the fact that most people don't say the Bible is the Word of God any longer. They say it was revealed to men, recorded by men, and has some flaws. With the Muslims, the Quran is still the Word of God, and it is flawless. And their religion is perfect, and it is the truth. And there's really not any room for doubt because doubt and skepticism in the Islamic world are considered to be one step in the direction of leaving the religion and being lured by the devil into falsehood. It's a fundamentally different culture, largely different than most, I think, for those that take it seriously. There's millions and millions and millions of secularists also. We shouldn't conflate anybody who's from the Middle East. But for those who take the religion seriously, and a lot more Muslims take the religion seriously than, for example, Christians in the West. Many people identify as Christian in the West; they don't go to church, they don't take it seriously that much. With Muslims, a much higher percentage do. So I would say in some sense, it's not the Quran but the Islamic religion. A lot of times, American Muslim moderates come in and they say, "These people have nothing to do with our religion," but all they quote is religious text. It was a big controversy in the run-up to dealing with ISIS. A journalist, Graeme Wood, wrote a piece in The Atlantic that talked about how Islamic ISIS actually was, and it wasn't saying it was good. He was saying that they misinterpreted religion, but they are religious. The American Muslim community pushed back and tried to force him to recant his views and to say that ISIS had nothing to do with religion. He said, "I'm sorry, it's just not true." And a lot of debate then ensued from that, from people like Sam Harris and others. And that's valuable critique, but there's a silencing effect. People don't like to hear that. So they — the American Muslim community, the Western Muslim community — distanced themselves and said that these people are just misfits, this is workplace violence, it has nothing to do with the religion. Even when Omar Mateen attacked at the Pulse nightclub, he called 911, he said, "My name is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and I'm doing this in the name of the Islamic State." Well, somehow, the left and the progressive community was able to say that this attack had nothing to do with Islam. It was homophobic bigotry from a latent homosexual, so to say. I don't even know if we're allowed to say that anymore. But it was someone who was actually homosexual himself who was pretending to be a jihadist, and that was the predominant view for a long time. You read the 911 transcripts, and he can even tell you the name of a commander that was killed in Iraq the week before, and that this attack is on behalf of him, and claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. But even when you do that, there was a time when there was an ability to walk back any affiliation with Islam from this. I'm kind of in the middle of it, but not so much in the middle because, like I said, what I just said — for most practicing Muslims — would make me a complete apostate.
SPENCER: Let me ask you a question. Suppose that a logical person who believed in Islam was put on a desert island, so they're not contaminated at all by other people's opinions. And all they did was read the Quran, read the Hadith, what kind of view would they come to? And how do you think that differs from the same exact scenario but someone reading the Christian Bible?
JESSE: Ah, that's a good question. Because no man is an island, right? It is partially the social engagement that the Quran talks about a lot, as it is the case of the Bible. But if a person, let's say, lived on an island, and they absorb the Quran for five, ten years, and then they were picked up and shipped back to society, or a person read the Bible and then they're picked up and shipped back to society, yeah, there'd be a fundamentally different (I think) opinion of the world because the Bible is really stories of people in history in the Old Testament, and then it's the story of Jesus, followed by the books of Paul. So you get more of a complicated vision (I guess you could say), where there wouldn't be this predominant belief that there were these rules that you had to follow to worship God, and this is why you were created, none of which in the Quran (I think) are that bad. I think they're healthy, even from a modern scientific standpoint, what we know about what happens to brains when they meditate and pray, and on and so forth, fasting and everything. I think it's actually that if they only read the Quran, they would be good and have a very balanced view of the world. I would be more worried about people that read the Bible. But when you add the Hadith to it, it's a different story. There would be a lot of rule-following. There would be an understanding that war is a very serious part of the religion, it's the highest part of worship. And that could be achieved, too, if you read only the Old Testament. But, if you read the entire Bible, when you got to the story of Jesus, you'd probably change your tune on that. But ultimately, I don't think they'd be that far apart.
SPENCER: Maybe there's a sense in Islam, that you have a more exacting set of rules that you have to follow. And this set of rules is the answer; whereas, maybe in the Bible, it's just a more complicated picture. You have all these different stories, and it's not quite as clear-cut, like what is true, and you have to do more interpretation or something like that?
JESSE: Well, the wall would not make any sense. Sacrificing animals on altars and stuff would just be, if you went back to a modern society, I don't know how to apply this. The Book of Leviticus, for example, does justify killing civilians and smashing babies' heads against the walls. So there could potentially be a tendency towards dehumanization. The Quran is a series of principles and it's like a chant. So if you're reading it in Arabic, it would be really almost benign. It's a lot of repetition. It's a lot about God's mercy. It's really a recitation that accompanies the rest of the Scripture, which is the Hadith. The Old Testament is largely a historical book that chronicles the prophetic tradition, and in so many ways, is built around ten commandments, which are very compatible with Islam. But then you get to Jesus and the Gospels, and it's largely a very different take. Jesus is coming and he's saying, you don't have to implement the 'he who hath not sinned, let him cast the first stone.' He is, in a sense, saying that the old wall is no longer appropriate. The old wall in the Old Testament is very different with regard to the way that you atone for sins. In Islam, you pray and you fast. In the Old Testament, you have to sacrifice animals and stuff at altars. So it's a very different mentality that would revolve around reading the book, in isolation at least. But that could be a positive thing too, because it facilitates — and this has been argued amongst academics and intellectuals, that preservation in the Bible, and the ability to recognize that it's not the word of God, that it's the word of men, but it could have been inspired by God — facilitates secularism, which by all accounts (empirically speaking), post- enlightenment secularization of religion facilitated peace, facilitated the development of the nation- state, facilitated the development of individual freedom and, if you look at Western development, all those things at this point should be empirically valid as systems that work in societies.
SPENCER: Alright, so let's talk now a bit about the actual recruitment you were doing. What was your general approach to getting people to be convinced that they should be sympathetic to Al-Qaeda?
JESSE: In the academic literature, it's largely portrayed as brainwashing, that people are lurking in mosques (or nowadays working online) and trying to grab the vulnerable and recruit them. It's not true. What we took was a statement from a medieval scholar, who said it's not the obligation of the person calling to the truth to make everybody accept it. The obligation of the person calling to the truth is to make the truth accessible to those that seek it. And I think that's representative of the way that it works. For us, we were invigorated true believers with an ability to articulate the narrative. And it was inspiring and empowering because it was as if you were worshiping God, and acting like David versus Goliath, by living in a society that obviously should (and did) shun what you were preaching. It was empowering and invigorating, and you thought that you were actually doing the right thing, calling to the truth. There's all kinds of ways that the religion activates that belief that you're part of a chosen sect that will exist at the end of times, that most of the Muslims will be ignorant, but that God will bless a certain amount of people to call to the truth throughout history, and eventually they will gain victory. But one thing that never registered in my head until I was arrested, and I worked with the FBI, and I had to do a debriefing process, and they showed me a lot of the people online that I never saw but had interacted with, and they started to show me pictures and more about the background of their life. It was apparent that the only people that we were reaching really were misfits. And that's when the realization came to me and occurred to me that, the whole time I thought I was doing God's work, I was actually manipulating the ignorant and the vulnerable. One of the steps of my deradicalization process was to come to that awareness because it allowed me to come to grips with who I really was. I distanced myself from culpability for a while, even though I thought I was changing. I never really realized the degree to which I had caused harm. And it took me a good solid year to really accept that. You still thought that they largely misunderstood you. They didn't misunderstand you. You misunderstood the effects of your deeds. That's a major point towards growth and realization that you're wrong. A lot of people that exit the religion still will tell you behind closed doors, that they were actually right, but that their solution was wrong. And they think that's deradicalization. But that's really an example of still holding the same grievance and justification and losing agency and your ability to atone, and to actually heal from what... If you weren't traumatized before you became an extremist, but you were really in an extremist movement, you're traumatized now. And so yeah, top-down, belief is not real. It's a two-way street, it's top-down and bottom-up at the same time. There's plenty of people in today's day and age — particularly with the online interconnectivity of putting us in contact with cultures, customs, and ideologies from around the world — plenty of people looking for an identity to adopt, and for meaning, significance and purpose. And if you throw one out there, and you reach enough people, plenty of people will adopt it. One thing about Al-Qaeda's ideology in particular, and then ISIS's later, was true as well. It's very intoxicating. It's very powerful. It truly is. And that's why we continuously say, you can't defeat this one with military bombs and bullets. We really have to promote (especially now with what's going on in the world), we really have to promote the values we believe in and to do it wholeheartedly and to do it realistically, because the allure is so powerful. We've almost put ourselves in a space where we've delegitimized our own beliefs in the eyes of Muslims in the Middle East in particular. But as a consequence of that, we've made serious inroads for the support of authoritarianism. And we now, at this point with what's going on in Afghanistan — even though we don't realize it yet, and what's going on domestically and with the complexity of the world that we live in — the radicalization recruiters we should most be worried about right now are Russia, China and the authoritarians, who not only pose threats to Western nation-states from within, but are realistically mobilizing to destroy the liberal world order and to move to what they're calling a rule-based order — which is basically an authoritarian order — and that overthrows the post-World War II world that America built.
SPENCER: What makes the worldview intoxicating?
JESSE: It's comprehensive, it answers every question, from how to use the bathroom, to how to fight jihad. It is much less religious as it is political. It is historical (taps into a historical past) that in some ways, is real, in other ways is unnuanced. It leads you to believe in the prospects of a utopic future but that utopic future is prophesied, it's promised, so it's a given. It has a component of it that puts you in a situation where you're praying by touching other people every day, you're shoulder-to-shoulder, heel-to-heel, in prostration alongside people from all over the world, which is a great part of the religion. But when it's mobilized in a political direction, and when it's mobilized in a comprehensive direction, most...not just jihadists, but to be a serious practicing Muslim that is taking the religion seriously, you believe that there is promised return of a caliphate and victory for the Muslims over the rest of the world on the horizon. You believe that you're living at the end of days. You believe that these things are about to produce an Armageddon. You believe that, if you're a jihadist, you believe that you are part of a chosen sect. The Prophet said there will exist 72 sects from Jews and Christians in the end of times and 73 sects from amongst my people, only one of which is in paradise, and they said, "Oh Prophet, which one is that?" "The people that follow what I and my companions are upon." So his companions are in the seventh century. You have to go all the way back to the seventh century and live like you're in the seventh century. That creates opportunities for dress, opportunities for attire that, in any cult, you're gonna have this. And so it's cultic and all cults are empowering but Islam is unique, because it has 1400 years of scholarship. It does have a period when it drove the world, scientifically speaking, philosophically speaking, and that's alluring. It's reclaiming the mantle that has been taken from you, so to say. And then it has all of the history of Sykes-Picot, the West engagement of colonialism in the Middle East transitioned into an understanding of American imperialism that's compatible with far-leftist progressivism in so many ways. I guess the far-left has changed to being more worried about dismantling White supremacy than it was with US foreign policy grievances. But back then, when the war on terror was the primary thing that progressives were worried about, it even had appeal and compatibility with that. You could go on and on. It's about Ramadan, fasting a month every year, sitting down with your fellow jihadist to eat, having fasted all day, and to talk about politics and the efforts to gain victory. And then you have what seemingly is a success, 20 years of the war on terror. The platform is to lure the Americans into a war of attrition, bleeding them to bankruptcy. And now with regard to what happened in Afghanistan, it's like, "Oh, yeah, actually, that worked. And we're one step closer to victory." Many Muslims right now feel that way with what's going on in Afghanistan, even those that would totally reject Al-Qaeda and ISIS. It is intoxicating. It's a community. You believe in the word of God. What can be more perfect than that? The Quran is considered literally, Alam Allah, the speech of God. That in and of itself, and then you feel chosen if you're a convert, in particular, chosen to have found the truth. You must have done something right if you found the truth. Very few people from where you grew up found the truth; you must be a chosen individual. So it has this empowering component of it, particularly when mixed with the politicization of the religion that can really give you a worldview that really makes you feel like you're special and different from most of the world.
SPENCER: I believe you said that it's less religious and more political. It's confusing to me because what you describe sounded very religious to me. So what do you mean by that?
JESSE: Well, the religion is interpreted through a political lens. So the analogies of the old stories, of the tradition, lead into a conversation about how this is a justification for this view of the world. The narrations in the Hadith talk about the people of Rome, Ahu Rum, and it talks about, in the end of times, they will fight together alongside you in Syria. These narrations have been attributed to historical facts when the Hadith were written down, that were going on with the Abbasid war between the Mu'awiyah and the Umayyad dynasty and the Abbasid dynasty. They were basically written as political propaganda tools to do the same thing in the past. But they're quoted as authentic, and then they lead to conversations about, the United States is the new Rome and the Antichrist and all these conspiracy theories. So what the conversations around the religion lead to is much more in-depth and in-detail justification because you have to shape... Every conversation about politics or society in general is based in the religion. The very simplistic narrations...like I used to talk for about two and a half hours on my time slot of the 24/7 radio station that we created online, basically. My two and a half hour diatribes would start with a very small...I was a student of international relations and much more concerned with the political side of things, much less enthralled by the religion, much more fascinated by my own ability to take the religion and to frame it in a way that facilitated my ability to talk about politics and geopolitics in particular. So I would start with 20 minutes of religious discourse, and the rest of it would just be revolutionary politics. Thus, we called our organization Revolution Muslim. I understand it's hard to understand, but you'd be surprised by the amount of political, economic, social and cultural conversations that people that believe in a political interpretation of Islam holds. But in order to have that be a political interpretation of Islam, or a terroristic interpretation of Islam, you have to at least see the idea that this is part of the religion, if that makes sense.
SPENCER: So the people listening to your radio show and reading your website, were these mainly people who were — you mentioned they were misfits — but were they already religious?
JESSE: Well, we facilitated their identity. A lot of them were young Muslims that were trying to find a path in the world that were not necessarily assimilating, or whatever the case may be. A lot of them were converts. And so they had gone to the mosque, and we were telling them that the mosque is full of hypocrisy. These people will never speak about politics. They will never oppose the war on terror; therefore, they are hypocrites. And they're trying to figure out their path in life. A lot of them probably had issues with their parents who had stopped practicing Islam. That was one of the underlying things that would come up time and time again.
SPENCER: So they were more into Islam than the people around them, basically?
JESSE: They adopted an identity that wanted to be, but largely a lot of it was rebellion. And a lot of it is the fact that the war on terror was on the tips of everybody's tongues. So for people that are living in...let's say, American Muslims, and you're 18,19 years old (when I'm active), and you're trying to figure out like, who am I going to become? And every day in the news, there's this Al-Qaeda, ISIS, conversation going around, and you are kind of asked to take a side. But you have some of the same beliefs that I developed, like society is not being fair to me, so I'll find faults in the society. And then somebody gives you that holistic worldview. You take one step in and you stick around long enough, you get sucked in, you become trapped in an echo chamber. All you hear is our views. And it's not just the political agreements. We're giving lectures on spirituality and purification in Islam. You get a little of everything because, like I said, it's a holistic worldview. So you might follow up my political diatribe with a class on just understanding when a verse of the Quran was revealed, and how the Arabic language defines this, and why you wash the way you wash when you pray. And so in every way, shape, or form, there's a component of the teaching that does represent a holistic worldview. And if you're surrounded by this idea that you are chosen, and you're a misfit, and you don't have any real success... I wouldn't say it's all that. We attracted many successful people. There were many wealthy donors that were anonymous (but we knew who they were), that were successful business people in the West, that were giving us hundreds of dollars a month, because they firmly believed in us and found that they had found the truth through us. So I won't say that it was true for all, but it largely seemed to be susceptible youth that were looking for an identity. We definitely offered one.
SPENCER: Was there a certain path that you were trying to take them down? Was there a series of milestones you had in your recruitment?
JESSE: Not really. Like I said, my job was the one who was pulling the strings and creating the narrative. I would say that you'd have to ask my associates, because I was so busy crafting the propaganda, and they would disseminate it. I would be preparing lectures. I would be writing articles. I was more the intellectual, not the charismatic preacher that would bring it to the people. I was organizing — how do we unite all these charismatic preachers behind closed doors? Why do we need to develop a glossy English language jihadist magazine? — creating, much like I do now, in other processes, use my creativity, in order to create programming. Yes, I have a public face. But when I'm not speaking (which is a very small portion of my time), I'm actually working my ass off to create innovative new ways of thinking. Well, I had the same strengths back then, too. So I wouldn't really know where I wanted to take them. I just knew that if I released the narrative, I thought it was the truth, I thought I was worshiping God by doing so. Later, when you start to see all the people that activated to become terrorists as a result of your language, and when you know how your life was falling apart, and how that was parallel to your willingness to advocate explicitly for terrorism, and you see the number of terrorist cases that are affiliated with your organization trek exactly with that trajectory, the deeper and deeper I got, the more willing I was to actually say, you should go out and act on Al-Qaeda's directives. I realized that ultimately, I probably wasn't trying to get them to commit an act of terrorism, but I was trying to prove my own validity and worth as an individual who could gain attention and get gratification. I got a lot of gratification from my lectures. I got a lot of accolades. I knew all of the charismatic preachers, and had direct connections with some of the imams of Al-Qaeda. That's hard to do when you're a White boy. So I found like, "Wow, I'm really good at this. Look at me." I fed some of my narcissistic needs, if you will. But I don't know if I had an objective for another person, or a desire to control them, or get to an endpoint. I just looked at myself as creating the narrative that was doing my duty as a true worshiper of God, if you will. I was really drunk on just what you would call a true believer, for sure. Never took a dollar from any of it, gave away everything that anybody ever contributed, and that was not true for the charismatic preachers that I was working with. They had turned it into an industry, so to say, but I was really on it, definitely, unfortunately.
SPENCER: You mentioned that there's this idea that you were putting out there that your Muslim brothers and sisters are being killed by America and you were using that to try to radicalize people. You also talked about people who feel like they should have been more successful than they are, and that was another part of how you drew people in. What were the other elements of the narrative you were putting out that really drew people in and appealed to people?
JESSE: Well, largely, it was really the grievance of the war on terror. Especially in the era that I was active, there was a lot of awareness, conversation and slowly, public opinion started to shift about Iraq and Afghanistan. And I would say it was largely a foreign policy grievance that, in the West, was already on the tips of... Our message politically was not incompatible with the message of Democracy Now! or a progressive outlet. We saw ourselves as, in a sense, being anti-war advocates, very much with a very different solution and a very different view of what was actually (quote unquote) "progressive," but nevertheless, espousing a narrative that a lot of people in our society were interested in, especially when we started the transition from Bush to Obama. During the Bush years, there was tons of conversation about Iraq. And then when Obama ended up giving us this temporary... We needed to talk about more, because the idea was that he was going to change relations with the Muslim world, then the primary appeal was largely just the notion of the hypocrisy of the American Muslim community, again tapping into the grievance of those that are misfits, and don't find belonging. So really, it was this existential narrative that was the most appealing, portraying them as supporters for Barack Obama, hypocrites, and then being able to point to that two years later, as he increases troops in Afghanistan two weeks after he wins the Nobel Peace Prize, then you can point to that, and then you can re-acclimate yourself with the foreign policy grievance. I would say, conversations about foreign policy that tap into those vulnerabilities that I'm talking about are the most potent. And then being able to articulate that in line with the religious arguments and some of the narrations that I mentioned here today makes for a potent ability. It's not just the push factors, it's the pull factors. The narrative itself is very pulling. The push factors are the ingredients that we're identifying, some of which we're identifying in this conversation. But it's also full of all of the complexities that are associated with an individual's life trajectory. Each case is unique. Sometimes it's just random chance. If you build it, they will come. People have built nefarious ideologies and, for some odd reason and for very different reasons, people enter cults. I wouldn't reduce violent extremist organizations and entities or ideologies to cults, but I do think that they have a lot of similarities at the end of the day.
SPENCER: How long were you doing this recruitment and how did that all end? How did you start to deconvert?
JESSE: I would say that I entered full-blown jihadism in 2004, and I was arrested two weeks after they killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011. So eight and a half years.
SPENCER: What happened when you were arrested?
JESSE: My arrest came about as a result of us threatening the writers of "South Park" for portraying the prophet Muhammad in their 200th episode. And we suggested on my website that they would probably end up like Theo van Gogh, an individual who created a film that was interpreted by Muslims as being anti-Islamic, and an individual stabbed him and killed him on the street. This was Ayaan Hirsi Ali's co-producer, co-director of a film that she made. As a result of that, it caused worldwide controversy, so a woman out in Seattle started Everybody Draw Mohammed Day in reaction to Comedy Central censoring the episode of "South Park." That caused a lot of uproar in the Muslim community, to the degree where Pakistan and Indonesia threatened to shut down Facebook because this is where the page was launched.
SPENCER: Just to clarify, there's a view that you shouldn't ever depict Muhammed, is that right?
JESSE: Yes. And it's very easily manipulated by radicalizers and recruiters when it's done in Western countries, where free speech is preserved as part and parcel of this war against Islam. As a result of that, I realized that I had violated the communication of threat walls because two of my old accomplices who were very prominent radicalizers and recruiters in their own right — Anwar Al Awlaki and Samir Khan, who were from America — had joined Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. And one of the things that I had designed — as part of that creativity in the jihadist milieu, and making the ideology of Al-Qaeda appealable to those in the West and making it Madison Avenue or Hollywood style — was, I developed these English language jihadist magazines. And I developed them with Samir Khan and Anwar al Awlaki, and they took that template. And as a result, in reaction to the "South Park" scandal, they launched the very first edition of Inspire magazine, which has gone on to become probably the most notorious radicalization tool, that gave recipes for how to build a bomb in mom's kitchen, that were utilized in countless terrorist attacks since then, and they launched that in the aftermath of the "South Park" scandal. I knew that I probably violated the law, and I fled to Morocco. And in fleeing to Morocco, I didn't realize that I would start a process of deradicalization. I lived there for a year before they arrested me. And while I lived there, I was teaching Moroccan millennial youth, GRE, GMAT, English language classes in order to get by, and the Arab Spring broke out, large support for democratization of the Middle East. And it was my engagement with their millennial youth and the fact that, as a result of running from potential criminal charges, I was removed to a degree from the extremist milieu. So I started to redevelop an ability to think for myself because I wasn't in communication every day with charismatic preachers that were solidifying my groupthink and my adherence to the cult. And then in conversations with the Arab millennial youth, I started to be enthralled by their creativity, their humor, their interest in things that I had taken for granted my whole life, the ability to speak their mind, and ability to engage in a marketplace that was a free market, to not have to deal with networks of privilege that predominate the economies of the Middle East. And I found it fascinating. And I also found and got caught up in a different ethos, which was an ethos that was affiliated with getting rid of Arab authoritarian regimes, not with the methodology of violence (as Al-Qaeda espoused), but through populist, pro-democratic movements. And I won't say it changed me but it planted a seed. Then Osama bin Laden, one of the last things that he did before he was killed, is he released this statement on global warming and he tried to blame all of global warming on American multinational corporations. And for the first time, a piece of propaganda from Al-Qaeda fell flat. And we now know that it was a result of him trying to rebrand because Al-Qaeda had a very bad reputation. So he was trying to portray a different message that was not so affiliated with terrorism, but presented them as their own social justice warriors, so to say, even saving the environment. And I found that absolutely absurd. The argument was not consistent with any real interpretation of who's responsible for pollution, etc. It just fell flat. It probably wouldn't have, without the other variables that I mentioned. Anyway, I still had to do time because they killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, which shocked me. And two weeks later, they released a sealed indictment and made it public that I was being criminally charged. So I was arrested coming out of a Casablanca mosque that was aligned with Salafi jihadism, and I was housed in jail in Rabat, Morocco for five months before the Americans came to pick me up. And the next phase of my deradicalization started when I met an extremist preacher whose lectures I had translated because they were very popular. His name was Mohammed Fazazi, a Moroccan who was a Salafi jihadist that was affiliated with the Casablanca bombings that were carried out in Morocco in the name of Al-Qaeda in 2004. And he had been incarcerated for that entire period of time, but he had changed his views. And he was about to be led out by the Moroccan government because he was (quote unquote) "deradicalized" but he was waiting for the release date. And he would walk me around the yard and it was my very first conversation with a former jihadist and someone whom I held in high esteem. And he challenged some of the retaining beliefs and set me off on a course for further deradicalization. The Americans came to pick me up. I thought I was going to do life in prison. I didn't know, but I did know that I probably had sacrificed my ability to know my children, and much of the rest of my life for an ideology that I didn't think was really worth it, in retrospect. And they flew me home and then the next phase of altering my identity and my beliefs came about when they housed me in solitary confinement. So I was housed in solitary confinement for almost a year. That's 23 hours in a cell with one hour out of the cell. But I convinced a third-shift guard to take me to the law library every night, four days a week, while she worked 10-hour shifts. She would let me sit up there as long as I wanted, got me out of the cell. And it was in that space that I started to access the law library and the general library of the jail I was housed in. One of the things I dove into was the Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World. I read a lot of philosophy. I read biographies of the American founding fathers. I read the Federalist Papers. I read Thomas Paine. I fell in love with people like Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and really started to realign myself with the values of the American system. And then on top of that, I had access to very good modern contemporary intellectual works — the works of Daniel Kahneman in cognitive bias, the works of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, "The Black Swan" — these things that make you really appreciate the complexity and the intellectualism that has evolved in the West, so to say, and there's a lot of other examples I could give. It was those readings that would then put me three days a week in a cell with just the Quran and the Hadith. And so I would take this post-enlightenment identity that I was reestablishing, and then read the Quran in a very different way, able to think for myself. That was a very important phase because I ultimately pled guilty to what I had done and became, and in order to get a plea agreement that capped me at 15 years incarceration, I had to do what they call a debriefing process with the FBI. And if I lied during the debriefing process, then the plea would be removed, and I would again be facing life in prison. And I was already different, but a series of events happened. First and foremost, somebody who was a convicted jihadist told me about a plot that they had left out on the outside world. And I was faced with the conundrum of telling and spying on a Muslim, which is tantamount to apostasy, or letting the FBI (who's coming to do these debriefing sessions) know. And I told them, and it ended up being a real plot, and then ended up thwarting a terrorist attack. And they were happy and the female agent that was responsible for leading the debriefing started to kind of trust me, started to advocate for me in the US government, that they should at least come talk to me. The Behavioral Analysis Unit, the people that do countering violent extremism started to come visit me, asked me questions. The NYPD came, did a case study. I started to feel like, even though I was gonna get up to 15 years in prison, I started to feel like there were ways for me to make amends. And I think that at first they were skeptical, but then they realized that he's kind of serious. So ultimately, I was sentenced to 11 and a half years in prison. But in that period of time, ISIS became the new game in town and many of my students whom I had indoctrinated, ended up in Syria, and became some of the chief propagandists for the organization. They wanted to continue to communicate with me, and they would communicate with me about plotted attacks and what was going on. And we were able to create a narrative that they were corresponding with my wife. She was writing the messages that they were sending on paper, handing them to me at visits, and that I would respond accordingly but it would take me some time. In actuality, it was an ability for us to gather intelligence. And so after three years of incarceration, I went in front of a judge for resentencing, and the US government said that I had gathered more intelligence on Americans who traveled overseas to Syria to join the Islamic State, than the cumulative counterterrorism law enforcement agency in the United States was able to do, and so the judge released me right away. On March 1, 2015, having originally been sentenced to 11 and a half years, I was let out of prison after serving three and a half years of that sentence. And I would say, by the time I left, I at least considered myself deradicalized. It was much more of a process, reacclimating myself with society and reintegrating in an effective manner. And I worked with the US government for a long time when I first came home, but ultimately, I reestablished my presence in the jihadist milieu and became an informant. One of the cases I worked went to court and they outed me as an informant in the courtroom. And the judge said to strike it from the record, that it would put me at risk. But a young reporter from the Washington Post ran with the story. So I was outed, and I could no longer work with the US government. And that's when I decided that I would become America's first former jihadist and I joined a think tank in Washington DC called the Program on Extremism and I went public and have been working in the realm of trying to make amends publicly rather than from behind closed doors since then. That's basically the trajectory. It's largely a process, not an event. And then, even after I took the job at the think tank, I actually relapsed on cocaine for the first time in 14 years. Because when you remove the ideology — and it operated as an opiate, as I was telling you earlier — all the trauma (all of the tendencies towards addiction, all of the tendencies towards numbing your pain with something to substitute the ideology) came back, and I in fact relapsed. But in recovery, they say that relapse can sometimes be a part of recovery, and I had to remember. What that made me realize was, it wasn't just the ideology that needed to be dealt with. I had to put my mind back in my body, and I had to heal the underlying traumas that were associated with my susceptibility to extremism in the first place. And that opened up a whole new avenue about thinking, not only how I could progress in my own effort to deradicalize myself, but how the awarenesses and the learning experiences and largely the correlation between trauma and extremism could be a benefit in pushing the field of countering violent extremism forward. And so that's basically the trajectory there. And since then, I've come to do a lot of therapy, to do a lot of work on myself, and to take those next steps in that realization that it's not just the ideology. The ideology is an opiate, and the opiate is appealing because of the underlying traumas and the underlying traumas need to be healed as well, in order to complete the process. I think now I'm relatively there. And if I look at the ideology and being an extremist as recovery from addiction, then I realize that I'll always be in recovery, but that a life of recovery can be fulfilling. My life right now, in doing what I do and being able to make amends, is not unlike a former addict who becomes a substance abuse counselor, or a former addict who becomes a sponsor in AA and NA. It is in helping others to heal that I myself continue my trajectory of healing. The nonprofit's name is Parallel Networks because one of the innovations that we've realized is that it is not just about individual radicalization, that radicalization is as much a group phenomenon as it is an individual phenomenon and that there's something about network theory in the science of networks that we are learning patterns that are quite applicable to the study and phenomenon of radicalization. So we take a public health trauma-informed approach that is largely different than anything that's ever been done in the field, based upon this idea that you can't challenge extremists unless you think in terms of networks, and that before you counter them, you have to create an alternative vision that has equal appeal that's built on antithetical principles. And then you have to build a network that rivals in size and scope to the extremist network. Then you can measure and effectively challenge and combat the extremist networks you try to counter. It's very different from the way that the field worked up until the point where we came around. And so we take our Parallel Networks philosophy, and we apply it in the international arena and the domestic arena. And the public health approach allows us to develop what we call an ecosystemic approach. So the name of the organization is Parallel Networks. Parallel Networks works with different partners in the international arena. We deal with things like counter-narrative work in the Arab world, the promotion of pro-democratic, pluralistic ideas. We help women and children returning from Syria through our platform of interventions that are associated with countries returning their citizens and effectively reintegrating them, those that had joined ISIS. We do a lot of work in Europe on far-right wing extremism. And domestically, we've developed a platform we call Light Upon Light. lightuponlight.online, is an ecosystemic application of the Parallel Networks philosophy from a public health lens that has really been successful. And we have been honored and privileged enough to get funding to do that work domestically. And over the past series of years, we've pulled over 200 extremists out of their respective movements. We now don't just work with jihadists. We work with the far-right wing, far-left wing, conspiracy theorists, involuntary celibates, all kinds of radicalized milieus in pulling people out of the movement. But we do it from a public health lens that also feeds back into prevention, education, the training of the law enforcement community. We have been around since I came back on the scene after messing up my job at the think tank in 2017, so we're four years old, and I think we've achieved more in the field of countering violent extremism than any organization that I've seen or worked with. It is working. And we're really at the nascent levels and early stages of development. There's been fascinating stuff coming out, where we'll be able to test and try some of our theories in spaces like Portland, Oregon, where there's massive counter protest-protest dynamics that are causing that entire city to deal with a lot of how societies at large can be affected when radicalization grows out of control. And radicalization (and violent extremism) is, in fact, contagious, in the sense that if you let it get out of control, it does become a predominant problem. So we're honored and privileged enough to apply our philosophy in a space that is ultimately representative of one of the biggest challenges in the United States. And it's all based upon the infusion of network theory, complex behavioral science and social science, replicating some of the lessons that I learned when I was a substance abuse mental health counselor who ran a program in Brooklyn, New York, and making it more evidence-based. It's really fun and invigorating and innovative work. And I think we've achieved so much in four years as a fledgling organization. The Parallel Networks philosophy recently attracted the interest of some investors, who are now going to create a private firm called Aslan Strategies around my underlying philosophy. And that will put me in contact with a lot of very prominent individuals, who are some of the leading thinkers in the world about how we can apply the Parallel Network philosophy (and the complexity that it allows us to measure) to all kinds of adverse social phenomenon including human trafficking, gang involvement, inner city violence, addiction in and of itself, and strategic communications with regard to dealing with disinformation, misinformation coming from authoritarian states like Russia and China. So the next wave of development of this underlying philosophy — which is basically an expression of the lessons that I've learned in life — is now going to be applied in different realms as well. And I can't say that I've ever felt more stable and more appreciated, and at the same time, more supportive of that American system, of that American society — that for all of its flaws, all the allegations that we need to dismantle White supremacy, all the allegations that capitalism is bad, and that we engage in a wrongheaded war on terror — I really love the history of the United States, the history of democracy, the history of liberalism, and I no longer believe in utopias, and as Thomas Sowell (the great conservative academic) would put it, a distinction between the constrained and the unconstrained vision. A constrained vision looks at human progress as slow, and doesn't look to build utopias; whereas, an unconstrained vision always looks at perfection. And oftentimes when unconstrained visions are implemented, they are completely haphazard and problematic. And I think we face that with regard to internal frustration, and domestic extremism, particularly with regard to the notion that we are a society that is solely based on White supremacy and then, until that's dismantled and we create an egalitarian, social constructivist worldview, everything is going to be oppressive. I find that completely congruent with the variables that I talked about that facilitated my radicalization into jihadism. And as that far-leftist sentiment with groups like Antifa and others grows more and more violent, I see the potential for an internal collapse for a number of factors of our own society. So I'm also invigorated by this idea that, even though I no longer believe in utopias, I still see myself as being able to contribute toward salvaging the principles that underlie democratic capitalist free societies, knowing full well that they are much better than the alternative which we seem to be creating a void for allowing to ascend, namely authoritarianism, and the state capitalism or communism promoted by China and Russia, and all of its allies that are now creeping up and growing in prominence and countering the post-World War II liberal world order.
SPENCER: Before we wrap up, one thing I wanted to ask is, what advice would you have for someone who has a family member or a loved one who's fallen into extremism, whether it's radical Islamic extremism or far-right extremism or far-left extremism?
JESSE: Keep the human connection. And don't expect change to come about from rational argumentation. When I work with people that are highly ideologically inclined, I try to get them to talk about their personal life. And then I can facilitate an awareness of the personal grievance and experiences being responsible for the adoption of the ideology. When I work with an individual that's able to express the personal grievance, but doesn't necessarily have a mastery of the ideology, then I talk about the ideology so that I can get more toward a position where I can work on the personal stuff. But for a loved one, the most important thing to realize is that there's a tendency to say, "Let's just leave that conversation off the table. We can still have a relationship," but usually it's the result of already distancing. So the reason that they'll tell you what they believe in is because they want to punish you for something they perceive that you did. And not breaking those ties is ultimately crucial. Establishing a dialogue so that they don't isolate is ultimately crucial. And then there's enough organizations in our society — there's not that many — there are organizations like Light upon Light in the American ambit, or what we do internationally in Parallel Networks. There are people that you can work with. There's not enough awareness of this. There are several organizations that do what I do. I honestly don't think any of them do it properly. But I think we're growing in a direction where civil society organizations can play a role in guiding people that are dealing with the radicalization of a loved one. I would say that it takes a lot of guidance. It would seem to be, and to make sense, to refute conspiracy theories rationally. Nothing can make a person believe in the conspiracy theory more than to challenge them. Confirmation bias will always prevail because they're so committed and it plays such a big role in their life, they'll always be able to give you a counter argument. The same is true for jihadists. The same is true for White supremacists, for Neo-Nazis, for involuntary celibates, for the far-left. So talking about the ideas and challenging them is not a good first step. Retaining that connection and learning how to facilitate that — probably with working with a neutral party and a professional — is the best approach to take.
SPENCER: So if you have a loved one who's telling you about their extremist views, I think a lot of people, their temptation is to try to refute it. But how should they behave in that conversation?
JESSE: They should let them know that, "I understand that that is how you feel." But if they're educated on why people adopt conspiracy theories, then they should be looking for fulfilling the needs that aren't being met if they're able to do so, or encouraging a person to at least consider an alternative view, but a reverent source. A lot of times, the real problem is that — let me say this humbly — the people that extremists are espousing their views to, whether it be a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, they're doing so because they're trying to blame them for their radicalization, and they don't realize it — to reflect upon where the fracture in the relationship came from, and try to deal with it. So it wouldn't be a bad idea for a mother to say, "I know that you feel that I did X, Y or Z to you when you were a kid and I understand that I made mistakes." When we study the science of reciprocal dehumanization, the evidence suggests that, if we counter another belief who is on another side, when we see the world as us versus them, sometimes we don't see that we ourselves exist in us versus them. I think that's going on right now with regard to our left-right divide in our society. We tend to see the other guy as completely wrong and us as completely right. If we approach an extremist like that, we're going to have a serious problem. What we have to do to eradicate reciprocal dehumanization is to show compassion by admitting faults in ourselves and admitting that some of what they believe in is probably correct, because that's typically true. Being able to acknowledge that usually creates an opportunity to establish a relationship, and then pretending (or actually being open) to being interested in why they believe what they believe, is an ability to allow them to talk about what they believe in in a non-combative way. But to simply ask in the sort of Socratic — and again, this is an art form that sometimes people...but in a simplistic way, everybody can practice it — Socratic questions that might challenge the belief in an inquisitive form, rather than a 'well, this is the evidence, and you're wrong about that,' that never will work. But showing a little bit of humility, and then thinking about why are they telling me they believe in this? Because a lot of kids will hide it from their mother or hide it from their father; they'll reveal it to a brother and a sister. And it is really — they might not even realize it — it is a plea for help. And it's also a plea for recognition that something happened along the way that made them get to that point. And trying to figure out what it is, at least in their mind, is a great example of the way that we don't meet an extremist with regard to an epistemological reference point that they themselves don't come from. So we meet them at their worldview. We speak to them in their own language. And I think that trying to do so, rather than to not talk about it — because a lot of people will be like, "Oh, my God, my son's a neo-Nazi. I just don't want to talk about that anymore. I just want to try to retain a relationship." — but the anger grows. They get more fearful. They start to see like, "Oh, my God, I hope he moves out." Much better to keep that time, and to look at an opportunity when an individual is not in the mood of being galvanized or getting high off the extremism, and to sit them down and tell them that you love them, to sit them down and tell them that...things typically for an extremist aren't working out that well. And so to be able to recognize that, to be able to recognize what they get from the extremist movement — which is the community belonging, significance, meaning, purpose — and to try to help and facilitate their awareness that that's what they're getting. It's not so much about the ideas. They're getting something and that can be replaced with something more prosocial, and to try to find avenues, if possible, to do things with the individual while also not suggesting that they're not allowed to believe in what they believe in, but that you can still find opportunities to connect with them as humans and still see the humanity in them. Might not work in all cases, but it is... Everybody that deradicalizes meets somebody that shows them compassion where they deserve none. And that is a fact. I have not seen a case unlike it. I have not seen a case where somebody didn't meet an individual that impressed them because, even though they were the big, bad extremist, they still looked at them and said, "You're a human being at the end of the day, and I still love you". And that alone, being told that you're loved... For most people that accept extremism, there's a serious lack of recognition and of love. It is counterintuitive to love an extremist but if we're going to get out of this, and we're going to elevate above the problems that we face right now, I do believe we need to build a trauma-conscious society that is largely based upon an awareness of the value of consciousness, creativity, compassion, and empathy. We need to start to recognize those people that are not being noticed, need to develop a society that's resilient to radicalization by being compassionate. And we have all the science that suggests that that's the only way to go forward. And I like to think that that's how humanity is going to pull itself out of what is apparently bad times, but to use this (as the Chinese allegedly say), in crisis is opportunity. So I do think that we are learning how to cope with things like social media. We're learning how to cope with the consequences of isolation. We're learning how to cope with a need to balance an individualistic society that is largely dedicated to the attainment of success, and increasingly associated with a certain narcissistic culture, but I think we are learning how to cope with that. More and more people are learning how to balance that, and we are learning all kinds of new stuff every day from science about compassion and empathy and its importance, community connection. We could go off for an hour and a half about all of the exciting things that we're learning about that importance, and all of the data that suggests that the society we've built is not conducive to those new awarenesses. But it takes time, takes progress, and one of the best ways we can build that is by educating people in our society about what to do when loved ones fall down rabbit holes, that don't just include extremism, that can include addiction. They can include all kinds of certain adverse behaviors: violence, gang involvement, engaging in illicit black market drug trade, etc. All of those things are basically cries for help even though the individual doesn't realize it. And sometimes all it takes is being recognized by one human being as still a human, even though you yourself feel like you're subhuman. And the anger and the frustration predominate the decisions that you make in life and you realize it, but you just can't stop. And there are moments when you realize it, that if somebody sitting there beside you is skillful enough to understand that this adoption of a radicalized ideology is not just that you've been brainwashed. It's that you were open to it. It has nothing to do with ideology at all; it has to do with personal grievances, each of which are unique. But if a person can recognize what they are, and see through the big bad bravado, almost. Like the bully, for most people, it's like, "That's just a bad kid, stay away from them." Well, that bully typically is coming from a circumstance that they've learned that somewhere, or they've experienced something that makes them adopt that as a defense mechanism. Being able to see the humanity in others no matter how evil they are, is tough to do. But I think in this day and age, the more and more we can educate society's members to do so, the more and more we can help people pull out increasing numbers of Americans in particular, who are radicalizing to these perspectives.
SPENCER: Final thing I wanted to ask you about. How do you think about your past actions when you were a recruiter? How do you process that now and how do you deal with the fact that you were involved in that?
JESSE: There's a difference between guilt and shame, I guess you could say. For a long time, I walked around with shame, and shame is toxic. Toxic shame is really dangerous, because you feel like 'I'm a piece of shit and I don't deserve anything.' Guilt is, 'I can't do anything about my past, as horrible as it was. But I can make amends. And I can do something every day to be better. And I can be sincere and be who I am in public behind closed doors, and try to make sure that those are congruent. And I can heal.' And anybody can heal. And sometimes maybe it will just end up the case in the long run, that all of that happened for a reason because there was a deeper purpose for you. That's where that spirituality comes in. And then being real and recognizing that there is a certain degree of an asset to it because you understand, you've been in their shoes. It is a phenomenon that society wants to address. A lot of the ways that it's going about being addressed are probably counterproductive. And so you have an ability, if you stay humble, to make amends and in the course, to heal yourself. And you can't punish yourself because that is going to get in the way of those goals. So the guilt can actually reorient radicalization in a positive direction. So if I'm not putting forth the same energy that I put forth in promoting the extremist message, when I get tired, I want to take a day off, I remember, "Younes Abdullah Muhammad never took a day off. Get to work." And that's invigorating, motivating, and empowering. And it makes me feel hopeful that as a course, and having the honor to do what I do now, that in turn, I am healing myself, and that it's partially therapy. The moment that it becomes about getting a grant and getting financial incentives, the moment that it becomes about an ulterior motive... I think it is that ability to stay in check and comfortable with that guilt that will prevent me from becoming a hypocrite. And I think that that's a value and an asset. I don't think I'm going to be able to save the world. That's what Younes Abdullah Muhammad would have done. I do think that coming to the realization that you can't change the past, but that you can always go forward is something that a lot of people that have dug holes for themselves in our society can get to. And it's that distinction between shame and guilt, that allows me to wake up and not punish myself for who I was, and the adverse legacy that I left behind, and to try to make sure that, when my kids get older, Daddy's done enough good to be at least somewhat forgiven in the eyes of the public, for those that still remember the era that I was most active and the harms that I caused.
SPENCER: Jesse, thank you so much for coming on.
JESSE: I appreciate it. It was an honor to be here. Thank you for having me.
JOSH: Hey, listeners, when we published this episode a few days ago, we were unaware that Jesse had passed away back in December of 2021. We only just learned of this fact today when a listener reached out to inform us. We're saddened by this news, and we apologize for any possible confusion or hurt we may have caused by linking to his Twitter handle, email address, etc. We have removed those items from his bio, but we have left the link to the Light upon Light website, since it contains many of Jesse's writings and information about his life's work.
JOSH: Why do you think people aren't more worried about climate change?
SPENCER: Well, it's interesting because I know some people that I think are really, really worried about climate change, to the point where they think of the future as being a disaster they're not sure they want to live in, which I think is pretty extreme. But I do agree that a lot of people are not worried about climate change, and I think there's a few things going on here. One is that we humans tend to not be very good about thinking in the distant future, and we tend to say we'll deal with that at some point. And we also tend to not be very good at thinking about things that are abstract. I think it's hard for people to point to very specific ways that they'll be harmed as climate change continues. Maybe they'll think, oh, maybe the weather will be somewhat more erratic or whatever, but they don't necessarily think of it as coming back to them in some tangible way that they can really concretely visualize. I think another thing is just the way politics works, where politicians generally are not in power for a very long time. So they have an incentive to focus on what they can do in a few years and what keeps them electable right now. So unless there's a really strong will of the people to work on climate change, on these really long-term issues, they're not going to be that motivated to do it. The last force I would point to, is just social forces. If the people around you think climate change is the end of the world, you're much more likely to think that; whereas, if the people around you think it's not a big deal, you're probably going to not take it seriously.
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