Sleeper Cells: Two Generations of American Jihad

(Note: the actual names of the former ISIS supporter and the Imam have been changed and omitted, respectively)

A transfer to Federal Prison, two former jihadi in the U.S. Marshall´s van. A car accident. “My name is Muhammad (name changed). I hurt real bad,” he said. Those were the first words we exchanged.

A week before our transport, Muhammad was sentenced to over a decade in Federal Prison by the same judge that originally sentenced me to 11 years in 2012. I was sitting in the same van because my attempt to becoming the first public former jihadi had failed miserably; I was now serving a troubling 90-day probation violation. I never expected that once back in jail, badly injured, I would be recognized as Younus Abdullah Mohammad.

“You look familiar,” he commented as I stood to wash for prayer. “I know more about you that you could ever imagine,” I responded. I’d assessed his case, social media activity, noticed him online, read his court statements, studied (and built) the network he became entangled in. In many ways, I was him. “Brother Younus…” he stated, seemingly awestruck, “you’re Younus Abdullah Mohammad, my God!” I didn´t know if he was shocked or appalled. “I was,” I responded.

We stood for prayer and we then engaged in a long discourse, for about 48h. We laughed and we cried from both physical and deeply rooted emotional turmoil. It was the only semblance of treatment I or he had witnessed in the U.S. prison system.

Two generations of American jihad, together in a holding cell. I was once Al-Qaeda; Muhammad was, in this new era, ISIS. We both knew it hardly mattered. The ideological ties that bind the Salafi jihadi universe in general are eternal: they cannot be defeated with bullets and bombs.

I wanted to know how Muhammad knew me. Was it because of my radical past, when I was Younus Abdullah Mohammed? Did he know about my collaborations with law enforcement? Perhaps he knew me already as Jesse Morton (my birth name), because I was hired by the world of academia to provide insight and experiential expertise to the field of CVE.

Although always difficult, I had to ask whether I had influenced him. “Are you serious? You guys started it all,” he explained. From 2005 to 2011, I ran Revolution Muslim (RM). In many ways, my colleagues and I lay the foundation upon which the ISIS online network was later built. “Your website was like the jihadi CNN. You logged in, and you would have original articled, lectures, news links, Photoshop docs, jihadi videos, translations… every day. I remember you on CNN, on RT, Press TV… for a while, you guys were on TV every day. Then you had Paltalk Room (an online communication platform), and everybody was preaching there. If it wasn´t live, you´d have recordings, you could instant message the leaders, meet girls… It was a 24h community.”

Muhammad explained the way in which we exploited the media, the mainstream Muslims, and the right-wing, anti-Islamic crowd. “RM was like Anwar al-Awlaki: everybody told you not to listen. So, of course, the youth would log on. When you listened, the jihadi component was only a portion. The rest was politics-forged policy; it was brotherhood, justice…And you guys gave lectures on brotherhood, raising children economics, the works. You were screaming in public, but kind of soft in private. People could ask questions and get immediate response.”

Thereafter, we engaged in a long discussion on the powerful interplay of religion, politics and prophecy. Surely radicalization has to do with a confluence of factors, but the transition from radical ideas to support or engagement in violent extremist actions is most definitely ideological, at least in the mind of a supporter. Perhaps the hardest thing to grasp, when all is said and done, is that you sacrificed your life and influence the life of others, for a vision that crumbles the minute you have time and clarity to reflect. It´s not unlike the whiplash we were experiencing in and of itself. Of course, defense mechanisms set in. You struggle. You want to imagine yourself as sacrificing and setting a greater course. Yet, deep inside, you know its deception and disillusion.

“It´s crazy,” Muhammad elaborated. “But the hardest part is that they try to portray us as barbarians, psychopaths… they want to know how you became this monster. They talk about brainwashing, but it´s like there is a huge elephant in the room, no one dares to mention. And you know that propaganda focuses on foreign policy. It’s the airstrikes that kill civilians, the support of the Iraqi Army, the authorization of dictatorships, the indifference when Sunnis are killed…”

I cut in. Synthesizing grievance with religion is my specialty. “I agree,” I said. “Most talk about ideology as it were solely religion, however absence of political grievance is not terrorism or violent extremism at all. They used to call terrorism political violence, and by all accounts ideology of terrorism had to have a political variable.” I elaborated on my own interactions with “experts”, both those who gut it, and the majority that won’t dare utter it. I added a nuance, however: “At the end of the day, two wrongs don’t make a right. There is no example in history where terrorism lead to some sort of political upheaval followed by effective change.”

“For sure,” Muhammad replied, “but it’s still frustrating.” “And it’s why the conflict on a broad scale persists,” I added. “But, you know was well as I do that it has as much to do with other factors. It’s like when you together a puzzle. You start with the borders. You go all around looking for the flat-edged pieces. You start on the outside, work your way in. So foreign policy is a piece of the border. You’re putting together ‘the puzzle of your life’, and you find that the major piece had gone missing. Do you complete it, or walk away?”

Muhammad was following. He’s bright and articulate, not unlike many of the jihadi that are perceived as idiots. I smiled. “A missing puzzle piece speaks louder than 1,000 words, but you still got a picture.” I look into his eyes, only reinforcing conclusions already drawn. I continue: “We both know it’s more about what’s at the center of the puzzle, the border is external. You gotta start at the core, work your way out… That’s where we went wrong.”

Muhammad’s face lightens when he chuckles. I elaborate: “I projected my frustration with child abuse and a society that didn’t protect me not a cause I discovered. Don´t get me worn, the elephant in the room was a major factor, but when you address anything with hate, you resolve nothing.” I quoted a verse from the Qur’an:

Let not hatred of a people – because they prevented from the mosque in Mecca – incite you to transgress. Help one another in righteousness; help not in sin and transgression” (5:2)

“I know you know that, but it feels to hear it from somebody who knows what you’re going through.”

“It´s so true,” he says. “When I was supporting the jihad, I was a regular kid. I was smoking weed, getting girls…” (You can see him shift as if there is something he needs to get off his chest) “The truth is that when I went back home to Sierra Leone I had a girlfriend back here. I was going back to my roots, and were talking about marriage. Then, I went to Nigeria.”

Unlike most, Muhammad almost made it to ISIS. He sat in the rear of a recruiter’s Toyota ready to depart for the Syrian jihad. However, he backed out because of a girl. “I climbed down, just picturing her, but when I got back to the U.S., I found out that she was cheating. I even saw pictures,” he explained. “I was devastated. I even contemplated suicide, and then I went from Facebook to Telegram. At first I was looking for a sister. I soon met an informant, and was all too willing to participate and plan.”

I´m now more curious. Muhammad doesn´t seem to portray himself as a victim. So, I ask how he feels about the FBI’s use of informants. He laughs. “Why? Because of you?” There is no doubt that my previous involvement with law enforcement hinders my legitimacy. “No, I´m simply curious,” I respond. He sighs: “You know? When I saw you on television, a bunch of us were watching it in jail. When you came out as a former extremist, I didn´t know what to think. But the next day, my sister came to visit me. We discussed it. She said that someday I could do that as well.” He described the happiness he saw in her… She fought so hard for him, even assisted his legal team. Then Muhammad explained the conversation the jihadis had on the cellblock.

“This one brother, you were an informant on his case, he tells me about how they have hired an attorney that released your name to the press. You know they fired him right away after, because the claim of entrapment seemed so crazy. The judge almost put the attorney in jail.” Muhammad shakes his head: “Even that brother now says that he understands why they have to use informants.”

Eventually, I brought up the possibility of alternative interventions to investigation and interdiction. I asked how he felt. “I just don’t know. I mean, when I saw my sister happy with the idea that I might make amends, I thought about talking to people a bit.” Then he stuttered, glanced at the floor and shook his head.

Muhammad has reached into a legal folder. He pulled out a letter. It was written to an imam often seen at conferenced and the like, discussing how he’s diverted people from the paths of extremism. He’s an “expert” that every “expert” consults. The note is genuine. It is a plea for communication. Muhammad wants to solidify altered views. “What happened?” I asked. “My sister sent it to him, but he never responded. So, she took it to the mosque and he was ecstatic, he offered to help.” Yet, you could see Muhammad’s discouragement. “He came for about then minutes, and left the visit early. He spoke to me as I know nothing at all, quoting citations we all know the jihadi refutations are based on. Then, he told me he had to run but he’d return. I never heard from him again”.

We spent hours discussing his story. He never asked me about mine. I knew that meant the conversation was cathartic. It cemented his doubts. At one point, he described the global Salafi jihadi network, the seemingly perfect mix of religion and politics. We talked about the broad range of interconnected issues – from the rise and demise of the Islamic State, to the spirituality of Rumi and the mystics. I quoted prophecy instructing Muslims, in times of strife, to break their words and stay in their houses.

The most important takeaway, at least for me, is that at the end of the day spirituality is about God and yourself. I explained, because I saw he was reluctant. I know why jihadis love to hear someone says things to their effect. They almost reflexively quote who the “experts” tend to call “Godfather of the jihad”, Ibn Taymia. They cite the segment of a short chapter in one of his most influential works. It explains that the popular statement attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, that the greater jihad is the jihad against the self, has no basis in the sciences of Islam.

“But you gotta read a little further,” I say. Ibn Taymia goes on to explain that though the literal quote cannot be verified. There is ample evidence to prove that the meaning of it is true. Muhammad smiles “Man, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard jihadis quote that.”

I closed. “All you gotta do is read a little further, with a clear heart and a pure intervention. The religion is advice (naseeha): that’s as much for me as it is for you.” I smile ear to ear: “So, who wins the debate? The moderate imam or Anwar al-Awlaki?” “Neither,” he replies. “That’s right. The true winner is you. You know the reality of both worlds and are in between.” He can only chuckle: “You sure you’re Younus Abdullah Mohammed? I’m wondering if this is really you.”

I enjoyed the experience. It gave me hope, reminded me that you may not find yourself where you want to be, but you’ll always end up where you need to be. It’s how interventions should work. Start with ideology, both religious and political; open them up, and then do surgery. I closed by telling Muhammad about by own mental health disorder, my slip and fall from the dream of my life. I explained to him that I was now trying to approach the root of affliction, but towards the center pieces of my own puzzle. Indeed, it is a difficult inner jihad. Muhammad helped me focus. Perhaps it helped him, but I know I benefited.

I hope Muhammad becomes a voice against hate and extremism. That he fills in the missing pieces of his puzzle while he is away.