Analysis: George Washington Hires Reformed al-Qaida Recruiter. A Hero’s Journey or a Reason to Worry?

When reformed al-Qaida recruiter Jesse Morton was hired by a think tank at The George Washington University, it spurred headlines at major national news outlets.

Morton, formerly known as Younus Abdullah Muhammad, spent three years incarcerated in Virginia on charges of inciting hatred, and conspiracy to solicit murder. It is in a prison library where he began his journey to deradicalization.

The New York Times, CNN, and PBS were all able to conduct sit-down interviews with Morton published in the last day.

Clicking on an embedded link to CNN’s story, the thumbnail shows Morton in his days as a radical Islamic recruiter for al-Qaida. The headline reads “From terrorist to university expert: GW hires former Islamic extremist.” Split into two parts, and highlighting two specific events leading up to each stage, it tells how Morton became radicalized and eventually found his path to reformation.

However, Morton’s video interview with CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is fraught with questions of whether or not the GW community can trust his intentions.

“But can he be trusted?” she asks.

The story cuts to a CNN interview from October 2009, seven years ago, when he was known as Younus, not Jesse, and where he is shown telling the interviewer the Quran commands them to terrorize disbelievers.

Cohen interviews Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, who hired Morton. Hughes and Morton each insist to Cohen the former recruiter is a changed man.

“Have you forgiven yourself?” she asks Mr. Morton, choosing to focus on his guilt rather than the unique technical expertise he could bring to the think tank – the selling point for Hughes.

The lower third reads “Former Islamic Extremist,” highlighting his role as a former Islamic radicalist, but again chooses against highlighting his reform.

A CNN roundup titled “5 Things You Need to Know Today” by Doug Criss included Morton’s story. The last line of the blurb ominously reads: “But something tells us this isn’t the last we’ll hear of this.”

The New York Times took a markedly different angle than did CNN. In a video interview titled Once a Qaeda Recruiter, Now a Voice Against Jihad,” you can hear the elevators at George Washington’s Gelman Library dinging in the distance, as if to say, “He is here on campus, and he is here to stay.”

Reporter Rukmini Callimachi takes the reader through Morton’s journey from an abusive childhood into the hands of jihad, and then to the turning point of his arrest in Morocco and resultant deradicalization.

The Times interview provides context and consideration, making a point to ask Jesse Morton about the expertise and background he will be bringing to George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.

PBS NewsHour covers Jesse Morton’s story as the dissonant struggle of his dual life as a graduate student at Columbia University by day and the founder of an extremist website promoting radical violence by night.

Anchor Hari Sreenivasan asked Morton about the “ten thousand sets of parents who might be a little concerned that someone with a target on their back may be walking around on the same campus as their students.”

The questions ran with an undercurrent that interrogated, “How can we trust him? How do we know he is telling the truth?”

Morton replied that the prosecuting attorney for his case vouched for him at his hiring at George Washington. The double-life angle of the story calls out with questions about his past, one of secret motives and duplicity. There is doubt surrounding his hiring.

Rather than asking national security experts that have already vouched for Jesse Morton in a year-long vetting process, CNN and PBS asked Morton instead if we can trust him in his reform.

Their headlines and ledes prioritized his role as a former al-Qaida recruiter, and don’t touch on his reformation until further into the story.

The New York Times painted a more classical narrative of return and rebirth, showing a man who saw the errors of his ways and went down a the path of redemption once captured.

To an extent, all three reports tell the same story of defeat and second chances. But, each report scripts the tale a little differently.

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