Homeland Security

Terror 'Defector' Stories Hyped by Media Collapse Underneath the 'Deradicalization' Narrative

Terror 'Defector' Stories Hyped by Media Collapse Underneath the 'Deradicalization' Narrative
President Barack Obama speaks at the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Summit, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The “deradicalization” narrative — along with a whole industry of academics pursuing large cash grants from governments looking to set up such programs — is built upon the premise that the right set of information and conditions can turn terrorists not only away from violence, but even into respectable and productive citizens.


More often than not, it seems, reality demonstrates the premise’s naivety.

In my previous article, I looked at the current case of Brooklyn native Mohimanul Alam Bhuiya, a former ISIS fighter who defected from the group and is now being enlisted by the Justice Department to help “deradicalize” other terror recruits. Having already pleaded guilty to his crimes, he is looking for reduced sentencing in exchange for his assistance.

I noted that many “deradicalization” programs established by Western governments have been fraught with repeated and embarrassing failures. But these programs have failed in the Muslim world, too — including in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population of any country, and Saudi Arabia, which arguably has the most global influence. If Muslim countries can’t figure out how to craft effective Islamic “deradicalization” programs, what hope do Western countries have?

Two recent high-profile cases of former terrorists turned defectors touted by the international media represented the promise of “deradicalization” programs, but delivered the predictable failure that seems the dominant pattern with such efforts.

The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda Recruiter Turned “Deradicalizer” Jesse Morton

Last August, national and international media organizations were abuzz with the news that former al-Qaeda recruiter Jesse Morton — aka Younus Abdullah Muhammed — was given early release from his 12-year federal prison sentence. Morton was to take an academic research position at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism:

Morton was not your average “material support for terrorism” jihadist wannabe. Not only was he in direct communications with senior al-Qaeda leaders overseas, but — as one of the leaders of the New York-based Revolution Muslim network — he was responsible for recruiting an eye-popping number of now-convicted domestic terror supporters:


As the FBI press release published at the time of his conviction on terror charges states, he openly supported the 9/11 attacks and the November 2009 massacre at Fort Hood by Major Nidal Hasan. He also directed his supporters to commit violence against Jewish organizations and the creators of the South Park TV program.

Amidst a PR effort by the GWU Program on Extremism, the media adored Jesse Morton’s story of radicalization and redemption:

Morton was sought after for interviews by media organizations all over the world:

He was even hailed by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly:

He also hit the lecture circuit:


Despite Morton having accomplished no more than getting an early release from his federal prison sentence and showing up for interviews, the foreign policy “smart set” showered him with accolades:

However, some urged caution, this writer included, at the media’s frenzied embrace of Morton and his story:

It was no surprise when, exactly five months after Morton’s hiring was announced by GWU, news broke that he had been arrested again, this time for vice:

In their rush to garner media, did the GWU Program on Extremism push Morton out into the public eye far too soon? How much confidence did they have in his “conversion” story? Was the narrative that “deradicalization” was possible in such a high-profile case too tempting for the media to apply basic journalistic scrutiny?


The answer to the first two questions may never be known. But the media’s haste to push the “deradicalization” narrative again exposed their ideological bias when all the evidence urged caution.

Tale of German Isis “Defector” Quickly Falls Apart

The headlines blared:

“Islamic State plans attacks in Europe!” “ISIS defector tells all!” “Terror recruit gives us a deep look inside the Islamic State!”

For the international media, the story was too good to check: A Western terror recruit who traveled to Syria, trained with the Islamic State, and then abandoned the terror group and returned home was offering media exclusives on the Islamic State’s deepest secrets. And these weren’t just any Islamic State secrets, but the crown jewels of terrorism reporting: insider information about looming attacks in the West.

Harry Sarfo, a German citizen of Ghanian background, had left for Syria in 2015. He even appeared in ISIS propaganda videos. According to Sarfo’s version of events, after a few short months with the group he quickly grew disenchanted with the brutality of the Islamic State, which he swore he never participated in. He then fled to Turkey, and then returned to Germany.

His story was first reported last June by ZDF:

In early August, The Independent (UK) and the New York Times:

International media dutifully picked up his remarkable story:


Unfortunately for Sarfo, his former ISIS colleagues still read the Western media, too. And they had a story to tell as well. Sarfo had lied — the Washington Post was provided video by ISIS operatives showing Sarfo directly involved in executions:


The story was no longer Sarfo’s insider look into the Islamic State. It was the media’s willingness to have taken a former terrorist’s word at face value:

Some of the reporters who pushed Sarfo’s story were defensive about their previous stories. The outlets later tried to walk them back:

How reliable did Sarfo’s claims appear to begin with? It turned out that there were issues from the start:


Someone could reasonably raise the point that current and former ISIS fighters may not be the best witnesses against a defector. How much was true? We really don’t know; most likely there is no way to determine how reliable his claims were. A skeptical approach to Sarfo’s story was warranted then, and definitely now.

Meanwhile, Sarfo has been charged with murder and war crimes for his role in ISIS executions:

Chasing the “Deradicalization” Unicorn

There are endless calls for governments to increase funding for “deradicalization” programs, and there are many NGOs, researchers, and academics seeking those funds. Yet as I noted in Part 1, these government-sponsored “deradicalization” programs are failing everywhere. Worse, there are not many ways to objectively measure success when something doesn’t happen.

In the recent cases of Jesse Morton and Harry Sarfo, the media failed in their basic journalistic responsibilities — in both instances they advanced the “deradicalization” narrative that fell apart in the matter of months.

Needless to say, the follow-up reporting that undercuts the initial stories did not get anywhere near the hype or attention of the original sensational stories.


It should also be noted that in virtually all of these cases of “reformed” or “deradicalized” terror recruits and operatives lies the threat of criminal prosecution. The suspects themselves have a real-world incentive beyond media recognition to spin personal stories of redemption: avoiding prison time.

Which brings us back to the case of Mohimanul Alam Bhuiya.

The Justice Department enlisted this former ISIS fighter as part of a “deradicalization” program. However, even in his initial communication with the FBI when he sought to return from Syria, he made clear that his intention was to eliminate any legal consequences for having joined the most lethal terrorist organization in the world.

He faces sentencing in federal court later this year.

An examination of these “deradicalization” programs in the U.S., other Western countries, and even in the Muslim world shows that the Justice Department’s chances of success are risky at best. Yet now we have the media, yet again, pushing a sensational story of a “reformed” former terrorist operative.

Why are they so insistent on not learning any lessons?

While the Justice Department and the media chase the mythical “deradicalization” unicorn, Americans face greater risk because of their pursuit.

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