They have TED talks and TV shows and research centers. You can even book some for events through a talent agent.
Some were neo-Nazis. Some were jihadists.
All are now part of a small but growing field of ex-radicals fighting radicalism—across the ideological spectrum—in what’s become a de facto consulting gig for a handful of articulate “formers.” Whether through research, public speaking, or counseling services, these people say they now wish to pull people off the paths they themselves once took into hate or violence. That experience makes them infinitely more convincing than a government official tweeting discouragement at an ISIS sympathizer. But divisions also exist within the community over how exactly to tame the monster they once helped create—as well as accusations that some are just cashing in on their notoriety.
“You can get really famous by saying, ‘I used to be a jihadist and now I’m not,’” says Jesse Morton, who himself made headlines in 2016 when he briefly joined George Washington University’s Program on Extremism as a former jihadist recruiter turned scholar. He told me that former extremists can be among the most valuable voices countering extremism, but can also easily make the problem worse.
Who, after all, is watching the TED talks? Morton argues that there’s value in explaining the radicalization process to what he calls the intelligentsia, but there’s also an element of preaching to the choir. Most skinheads aren’t going to be convinced to reform by an Aspen Ideas panel, nor is that really the point of an Aspen Ideas panel. (The Aspen Ideas Festival, which has featured panelists such as Morton, is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.) The problem, as Morton sees it, is that former extremists can provide fodder for current extremists by allowing propagandists to point to them and their ideas as the enemy. Formers can, in their eagerness to condemn their own prior worldview, exacerbate the very us-versus-them narrative that helps fuel radicalism in the first place.
“If you’re promoting a polarized narrative and don’t realize it, then you’re part of the problem,” Morton says.
Deradicalization and counter-extremism programs, especially those involving former extremists, are relatively new in the United States, but they have a longer history in Europe, according to Lorenzo Vidino, the director of the Program on Extremism, who helped recruit Morton to work there as a researcher. The U.K.’s Quilliam—which describes itself as “the world’s first counter-extremism organization”—was founded as a think tank in 2007 by three British former radical Islamists.
The Obama administration launched its own “countering violent extremism” initiative in 2011, with a variety of programs aimed at helping local law enforcement share information, do community outreach, and try to prevent attacks. The program was always a target for criticism, ranging from complaints about underfunding to accusations that it unfairly focused on and stigmatized Muslim communities. Right-wing extremism, moreover, was not a top priority then, and one organization dedicated to countering it got some funding under Obama but saw it lapse under Trump.
But there wasn’t a systematic effort to recruit formers into that project early on. Vidino had observed the European experience and thought such a strategy might be useful in the United States, though he told me he was aware of “some of the issues.”
Those included the fact that what radicalizes one person doesn’t necessarily radicalize another—so any former’s personal experience might not be persuasive to anyone else. Another concern is that formers themselves might have unresolved personal problems—something that became clear when Morton was arrested on drug and prostitution charges in 2017. The university did not deem it appropriate for Morton to stay after he was charged. “You go from prison as a well-known jihadi to front page in The New York Times as somebody who’s fighting terrorism—that [would mess] up a lot of people,” Vidino said.
But he still believes former extremists can provide valuable contributions, both in helping understand extremism and helping to combat it. He recalled seeing Morton address a room full of FBI agents. “If I go there and give a talk, I’m a boring academic,” Vidino said. “Jesse would bring it home in a very personal way.” Morton now works with the former NYPD officer Mitch Silber, who once investigated him, at a counter-extremism organization called Parallel Networks.
Silber says he got interested in working with formers after meeting Quilliam’s founders. “They had this unique credibility and legitimacy because they’ve been on the other side,” he told me.
Since then, he has also worked with Bryant Neal Viñas, who was picked up in an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan in 2008. He pleaded guilty, cooperated with the FBI, and served eight years in prison. Now Viñas writes articles, talks to the Council on Foreign Relations, and is interviewed on podcasts. “You go to the depths of depression and rock bottom, alone, and left for dead almost, and then suddenly there is this one route open to redemption, and potentially even financial security,” Silber says. “It’s hard not to see a person taking that lifeline and making the most of it.”
But the counter-extremism path is not necessarily a lucrative industry for many formers—indeed, it’s barely even an industry. Viñas works construction jobs to stay afloat. Shannon Foley Martinez, who describes herself as a former violent white supremacist and has spoken about leaving the movement on the Today show, told me that she gets occasional consulting contracts but mainly tends bar. She has seven children and a stepson, and when organizations fly her to conferences to speak, she has to pay for child care and often ends up losing money, she told me.
Martinez, too, worries about the potential for formers to do harm even when trying to do good; she noted that there are no real “industry standards” and that this, along with competition for limited work opportunities, has contributed to rifts in the broader community she calls the “formersphere.” “What happens if you’re working with someone and they go on to commit an act of violence against themselves or others?” she asked. She warns people she counsels that she has to report any specific threats of violence to authorities. But, she said, “I don’t know if that’s accepted practice.”
Nevertheless, she says she has worked with many formers who are driven not by a desire for recognition but a sense of responsibility to use their own past wrongs to help others avoid them. “My personal take on it is anyone doing good work, and anyone ... helping other people, I am all for that.”