Former Al-Qaida Propagandist Launches Counter-Jihadi Magazine

Once al-Qaida’s chief American propagandist, Jesse Morton is launching a new counter-jihadi magazine.
In 2009, Morton, then going by his adopted Muslim name Younus Abdullah Muhammad in New York City, helped launch Jihad Recollections, the first in a line of online glossy magazines that captured the imagination of many young jihadis.
With an emphasis on visual presentation and design, the magazine came to be dubbed the Vanity Fair for al-Qaida, giving rise to several, more enduring iterations, including al-Qaida’s Inspire and the Islamic State’s Dabiq and Rumiyyah.
The first issue of al-Qaida’s Inspire magazine included the infamous article “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom.” Its second edition taught readers how to turn a pickup truck into “the ultimate mowing machine” against civilian targets.
Morton is a changed man these days, haunted, after four years in prison on terrorism charges, by the realization that his online creation led others to commit acts of violence.
Same design, alternative voice
Using the same design he used to create Jihad Recollections a decade ago, Morton is rolling out a new magazine on Friday, offering an alternative voice to "those that espouse hate and violent extremist interpretations.”
“We’re using a template and a medium that has been incredibly successful,” Morton says. “By taking them back, you can end the legacy.”
Rich in graphics and photography, the 39-page Ahul Taqwa, Arabic for the “People of Consciousness,” has the same look and feel as Dabiq and Inspire. But a closer look reveals deep differences to Dabiq, which fetishized images of abject violence.
“What we’ve done is rather than show pictures of people killing as if it’s a good thing, we have pictures of people dead in the street, where there is a baby doll sitting next to a body bag,” Morton says.
The articles, mostly penned by Morton under an assortment pseudonyms, are avowedly anti-jihadi. Citing verses from the Koran, the authoritative sayings of Muhammad, and no less an authority than Ibn Tyamiyyah, a 14th century Arab theologian revered by modern-day jihadists, Morton seeks to debunk the jihadi arguments.
“The magazine is to appeal to the emotions, to deconstruct the theological argument, and also to recognize that radicalization and violent extremism is a socio political phenomenon,” Morton says.
This is not the first attempt at countering online extremist propaganda. Under the Obama Administration, the State Department briefly experimented with a counter-messaging campaign that sought to highlight the Islamic State’s atrocities. A subsequent, more positive counter-propaganda campaign, funded by the Department of Homeland Security, proved similarly short-lived.
New path, new voice
What makes his campaign different, Morton says, is that it was “started by a credible messenger.”
“I do know one thing,” Morton says. “There has been no example of a counter-messaging tool that has ever been effective. And I think this one has a very high likelihood of being the first.”
But whether Morton's effort bears fruits where others have failed remains to be seen. While Morton sees his jihadi bona fides as an asset, his detractors view them as a liability.
Born in Pennsylvania, Morton converted to Islam in 2000 before falling under the sway of Islamic militants. In 2007, along with a fellow convert, Morton co-founded Revolution Muslim, an organization that propagandized on behalf of al-Qaida online and on the streets of New York. But he was arrested in 2011 and later convicted of terrorism related charges after his group threatened the creators of the animated television sitcom South Park for mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
From terrorist to FBI informant
Morton spent just three years of an 11 and-a-half year sentence after agreeing to become an informant for the FBI. Since leaving prison in 2015, the former jihadi has become an anti-extremism advocate. Last year, Morton co-founded Parallel Networks, a group that works with former jihadis and other extremists. His co-founder? Mitch Silber, a former New York Police Department intelligence director who helped catch him.
Ahul Taqwa is the brainchild of their joint efforts.
In the lead up to the magazine's launch, Morton’s team of volunteers, using fake personas, created accounts on Facebook and Telegram, the encrypted platform frequented by jihadists.
Posing as "helpers" of the Islamic State, they announced the imminent launch of a new English language magazine to replace the now-defunct Dabiq and Rumiyyah. They posted a promotional video complete with a picture of a gun-toting ISIS founder Abubakr al-Baghdadi and the group's familiar battle song and asked their followers to share it.
The response has been muted. While a handful welcomed the advent of a new magazine, others were more skeptical.
“The hardcore guys that are associated with somebody in Syria or Iraq, they know it’s not official,” Morton said.
Getting the word out
In the week leading up to the magazine’s launch, Morton says his team contacted at least 50 people on Facebook and at least 15 of “the biggest propagandizers in English for ISIS” on telegram.
“Our next steps, once we take responsibility, are going to be to move slowly,” he says. “There will be no immediate engagement. This is an initiative that will take time.”
In its heyday, ISIS lured foreign fighters by propagandizing its territorial gains. With the collapse of the caliphate, the triumphalist narrative has been replaced by calls on Muslims in Western countries to carry out so-called “lone wolf” attacks.
With its propaganda operations crippled, Islamic State hasn’t been able to publish its online magazine in nearly two years. But that hasn’t stopped its adherents from carrying the mantle online.
“Right now, the ISIS voice is a monopoly,” Silber says. “There is no policing, no 70-year-old imam from Pakistan or Egypt, no teacher, no social worker, to teach them and say, 'By the way, I did this, and I know there is nothing at the end of this.'”



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