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Once a Qaeda Recruiter, Now a Voice Against Jihad

In a new effort to counter the lure of terrorism, a former American jihadist is moving into the public sphere to research the ideology he once spread.

Off campus, he gravitated to groups sporting the black flag, first through the Islamic Thinkers Society, an offshoot of the British group run by Anjem Choudary, who was convicted this month and charged with using online lectures to incite support for the Islamic State. Soon Mr. Morton was introduced to the jailed Jamaican extremist Abdullah al-Faisal, the mentor of one of the 2005 London bombers, and began writing to him.

Together, with the help of another covert in New York, the three decided to start Revolution Muslim, which went live during Mr. Morton’s Christmas break in 2007.

The website courted controversy, and was used to bring in those who were flirting with extremism. On Fridays, Mr. Morton stood outside mosques in New York, giving speeches criticizing the “soft Islam” preached inside. Videos of the confrontations would be featured on the site next to audio recordings from Osama bin Laden. The site branched out with a YouTube channel.

“Revolution Muslim was a bug light, which attracted aspiring jihadists with their message,” said Mitch Silber, the former director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department, whose team invested heavily in tracking Mr. Morton’s online activities.

Turning the Recruits

The website brought in a ready pool of recruits. “Once you see that they are logging in consistently, you don’t really need to take them all the way,” Mr. Morton said.

“What you have to do is frame their personal grievance,” he added, “making them think that they can contribute to a broader cause. And you do that through the ideology, because believe it or not, Islam can be framed in a way that is incredibly revolutionary.”

Mr. Morton said that instilling an unbendingly literal brand of Islam was critical. The first concept is that God is the sole lawgiver. “Then you use that principle to say that all the Muslim rulers, because they don’t implement Shariah law in its entirety, they are not Muslim at all, so we can rebel against them.”

Next, he taught recruits that their allegiance needed to be solely to fellow Muslims, seeking to cut them off from friends and family.

Once those principles were embedded, Mr. Morton said, “you could essentially do anything you wanted with them.”

Revolution Muslim became a relay station for Al Qaeda’s broader message. In its orbit, you could find many of the American citizens who either attempted to join the group or else plotted murder in its name.

One follower of the group’s YouTube channel was the Pennsylvanian convert Colleen LaRose, known online as “Jihad Jane.” She was charged in 2010 with plotting to murder a Swedish cartoonist, prompting Al Qaeda’s leading propagandist, Anwar al-Awlaki, to declare that “jihad is becoming as American as apple pie.”

A recruit from Massachusetts was accused of planning to blow up a shopping mall. Bryant Vinas, a Long Island convert who had interacted with Mr. Morton, went as far as traveling to the Waziristan region of Pakistan, where he began preparing an attack on the Long Island Rail Road before he was arrested.

All the while, Mr. Morton was calibrating how far he could go, and his associate consulted a lawyer to study the outer limits of free speech.

“And we would walk right up to the line,” he said.

The line was finally crossed on April 15, 2010, when Zachary Adam Chesser, a volatile, 20-year-old associate of Mr. Morton’s, uploaded the home addresses of the creators of the cartoon show “South Park” after an episode mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

When Mr. Chesser was arrested while trying to board an international flight on his way to join the Shabab militant group in Somalia, Mr. Morton fled to Morocco. A year later, he, too, was arrested, and initially held in a Moroccan prison.

The Americans came for him on Oct. 27, 2011. He recounted being driven to a deserted airport, where he clutched his Quran as a team of United States agents handcuffed, shackled and blindfolded him. Before placing earphones over his ears, they took away his Quran.

He was surprised when one of the agents removed the blindfold midflight and handed him back the holy book. It was the first of several gestures that he said would touch him, a step along what he described as a long, gradual path out of radicalization.

Back in the United States, he awaited sentencing in solitary confinement, where a guard broke the rules and allowed him to leave his cell and spend the duration of her shift in the library.

He said the first book he had grabbed was Volume 35 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. Over the coming weeks, he lost himself in the writings of the Enlightenment, starting with John Locke’s 1689 “Letter Concerning Toleration.” The philosopher argued that faith could not be bought through violence, prompting Mr. Morton to reflect on how his captors had handed him back his Quran.

At night, he said, he would dream he was sitting across from Bin Laden.

“I’m asking him questions: ‘Am I becoming a disbeliever? Am I going to hell?’” Mr. Morton said. “He doesn’t talk. He has nothing to say.”

Shifting Sides

It was in the prison library that a guard pulled Mr. Morton aside and led him into a room where two F.B.I. agents were waiting.

They had logged into his former email account and tracked his former recruits, several of whom had joined the Islamic State. Now they wanted him to become an informant. Wrestling with the idea, and increasingly disillusioned with fundamentalism, he eventually agreed.

On a hot summer day two years ago, soon after the Islamic State had declared its caliphate, Mr. Morton received a letter from Syria. It was from one of his former students, who enthusiastically described how he had spent the morning swimming in the Tigris, just after the Islamic State had routed the Iraqi military in Mosul and hung the decapitated heads of enemies from a fence.

Instead of sharing his recruit’s excitement, Mr. Morton threw up inside his cell.

“This is a person who was my student, literally called me with every single question he had, and I said, ‘Go to Syria,’ ” he recalled. “It’s like Frankenstein. I didn’t create it, but I certainly contributed to it.”

Mr. Morton continued working undercover until he was outed as an informant by The Washington Post. By then, the judge had reduced his 11-year sentence to three years and nine months. He walked out on Feb. 27, 2015.

He now lives in Virginia, and the terms of his release prevent him from traveling outside the greater District of Columbia area. On Monday, when classes resume at George Washington University, Mr. Morton will be there, too, in his role as a researcher.

Still, he said, at night he is gripped by fear.

The extremists he turned his back on could try to harm him — the Islamic State considers spying a form of apostasy, punishable by death. Mostly, though, he worries about the ideas he unleashed on the world.

“I’m scared — not because I think I’ll go back, but because of what’s coming,” he said. “I was so committed to destroying the world that I lived in, and now, for rational reasons, I realize that international order needs to be protected.”

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