From darkness to light: an interview with ex-jihadist Jesse Morton

prevent extremism

The first thing that strikes you when talking to Jesse Morton is that he is clearly a very intelligent, thoughtful and philosophical man. Now working as the founder and leader of Light Upon Light - a counter-extremism ‘ecosystem’ portal as he describes it - he is a man that understands the extremist’s mindset and is in a pretty unique position to do something about it.

As the creator of the first English-language Jihadi magazine, in the early Noughties, Jesse was responsible for widespread recruiting to the Al-Qaeda cause and was the founder of the Revolution Islam website.

By the time of Jesse’s arrest for these actions in 2011, he had already begun thinking that he may be on the wrong road. An act of kindness by one of the US law enforcement officers who flew him back from his hiding place in Morocco, as well as a prison guard who allowed him to read Western philosophy as he was awaiting trial, broadened his horizons yet further. His route back to the other side continued as he worked first as an FBI informant, and then, after his 11-year sentence was reduced to less than four years, as a scholar studying what drives people to extremism.

Now running Light Upon Light alongside the FBI officer that had originally investigated him, he is clearly as passionate and dedicated to the anti-extremism cause as he once was for the Al-Qaeda narrative he espoused for so many years.

We are privileged to be working in partnership with Jesse and Light Upon Light, as the organisation’s great work looks to spread across the Atlantic and join with Groundswell’s ethic and ambition to promote peacekeeping and community love, and work against the propagators of hate, discord and extremism.

Speaking to Groundswell a few days ago, he talks about the current work of Light Upon Light and its umbrella organisation Parallel Networks: “Our ecosystem has a fully holistic approach. We are driven by the notion that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. The Light Upon Light paradigm is an effort to elevate to the next level of consciousness.”

Light Upon Light explains its work through the Ctrl+Alt+Delete-Hate approach. Ctrl is about empowering our responses to the problem, creating an awareness of what the problem is. Alt is about driving our ability to alter course - as Martin Luther King Jr stated: “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that”. Del-Hate is about attacking the problem and its underlying causes at a higher level of consciousness that that which created and sustains it. This approach is used by Light Upon Light’s combination of professionals, practitioners and mental health specialists that work together to pull people out of extremism and onto a brighter and more hopeful path through life. This approach is used by the organisation through one on one and collective community engagement.

Speaking about how he sees the future for Parallel Networks and Light Upon Light, Jesse says: “The long term goal is to become a movement, building out the organisation. Extremists have a coherent world view and are embedded in an ecosystem. If you don’t offer them similar 24/7 support and messaging, if you’re not dedicated to the anti-extremism cause, then you are not going to be able to pull them out. We are an organisation run by people who are driven by making amends for the mistakes they have made in the past.”

And Jesse is passionate about working with Groundswell in the future. He says: “Groundswell importantly is a grassroots organisation which understands networks. This gives it the ability to adapt much more quickly than the big organisations, which is what is needed to counter extremist and far right ideology. Ideally we can build a transatlantic partnership that can have the ability to change and adapt to fight the extremist ideology wherever it arises.”

We are looking forward to seeing where our partnership with Jesse and Light Upon Light takes us over the coming weeks and months. Find out more about Light Upon Light and Parallel Networks here, and keep on watching our website, social media and newsletter for developments in our partnership and the work of both our organisations in this important mission.