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.”
Read: White nationalism’s deep American roots
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.”