Abstract: Between 2006 and 2012, two men working on opposite sides of the struggle between global jihadis and the United States faced off in New York City. One was the founder of Revolution Muslim, a group which proselytized—online and on New York streets—on behalf of al-Qa`ida. The other led efforts to track the terrorist threat facing the city. Here, they tell the inside story of the rise of Revolution Muslim and how the NYPD, by using undercover officers and other methods, put the most dangerous homegrown jihadi support group to emerge on U.S. soil since 9/11 out of business. As the Islamic State adjusts to its loss of territory, this case study provides lessons for current and future counterterrorism investigations. 

The Revolution ended on a dusty street outside a mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. The sun was setting in late May 2011 when Moroccan police cleared the streets and stopped and arrested Younus Abdullah Muhammad (aka Jesse Morton, the co-author of this article) as he was on his way home to his wife and two young sons. The officers told the man who had been one of the most prolific recruiters for al-Qa`ida in the United States, “You have a problem. It is not with Morocco but with America. You are wanted as American al-Qa`ida, and we’re sending you home.”1 A few months earlier, a jury in the Eastern District of Virginia had indicted Younus Abdullah Muhammad for incitement to terrorism, and the United States had requested his extradition from Morocco.2

The indictment of Younus Abdullah Muhammad capped a six-year international investigation that began in New York City but touched four continents. It required the deployment of four deep undercover officers, a team of detectives, intelligence analysts, and confidential informants as well as close partnerships with multiple federal agencies and international allies.3 It was an investigation that co-author Mitchell Silber supervised for the New York City Police Department Intelligence Division.

The disruption and destruction of the Revolution Muslim terror network was of critical importance. Through its violent ideology and prowess in radicalization and recruitment in the West, the network was connected to almost 20 American and British terrorists, with plots that included a September 2011 attempt to fly a remote-controlled plane strapped with explosives into the Pentagon, a March 2010 plot to kill a Swedish cartoonistハwho satirized the Prophet Muhammad by Colleen LaRose (aka Jihad Jane), the May 2010 stabbing of a British member of Parliament, a Christmas bomb plot in 2010 against the London Stock Exchange, the January 2009 targeting of the Chabad-Lubuvitch headquarters in Brooklyn, death threats against the creators of South Park in April 2010, and a November 2011 lone-actor bomb plot in New York City.4 One member of the Revolution Muslim network was killed in a drone strike in Yemen, where he had joined al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Several attempted to leave the United States to fight for al-Qa`ida Core and al-Shabaab between 2007 and 2011, and some joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria during 2013 and 2014.5 All in all, there were at least 15 plots, arrests, or kinetic military actions related to members of the Revolution Muslim network worldwide.6

And at the center of Revolution Muslim was its founder and leader, Younus Abdullah Muhammed, aka Jesse Morton. As U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride noted in 2012, “Jesse Morton operated Revolution Muslim to radicalize those who saw and heard his materials online and to incite them to engage in violence against those they believed to be enemies of Islam. We may never know all of those who were inspired to engage in terrorism because of Revolution Muslim, but the string of recent terrorism cases with ties to Morton’s organization demonstrates the threat it posed to our national security.”7

Revolution Muslim was a virtual terrorist group before the term ‘virtual caliphate’ was used by some to describe the Islamic State following its loss of territory in Iraq and Syria. As a result, analyzing the history, operations, and means employed by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in thwarting Revolution Muslim offers essential insights in understanding the challenges now presented by the Islamic State.

The NYPD Intelligence Division’s effort to disrupt, dismantle, and destroy the Revolution Muslim network and radicalization hub was multi-faceted and required a sustained effort over more than six years. It is useful to examine this effort by breaking it down into five different phases: 1) Identification phase—detecting the threat/network; 2) Investigation and Penetration phase—beginning the investigation; 3) Intelligence Collection and Analysis phase—understanding the threat; 4) Crushing the Network phase—arresting and prosecuting; and 5) Loose Ends phase—pursuing members on the periphery of the network who later activated. At a time when some believe the Islamic State appears to be morphing into a virtual caliphate, it is the authors’ hope that this analysis provides lessons for future counterterrorism efforts. 

1. Identification Phase: Detecting the Threat/Network through Digital HUMINT
Starting from scratch in late 2002 with little experience or know-how, the NYPD created the first “cyber intelligence unit” in any metropolitan police force anywhere in the world. The Intelligence Division had learned quickly that the internet was becoming an important tool of terrorist organizations. Al-Qa`ida and its affiliates were beginning to communicate their ideology digitally, and these messages were translated into English and shared via online discussion boards. The internet was rapidly becoming a source of radicalization, a place where already radicalized individuals around the world could communicate securely with one another in online “echo chambers,”a forming “virtual” jihadi clusters. The internet had also become a threatening source of information on bomb-making material, explosive devices of all kinds, and manufacturing techniques, thus obviating the need to travel to locations like Afghanistan for this type of training.

As a result, over time, the NYPD developed a cadre of detectives, fluent in a wide range of languages from Arabic to Urdu, who spent their days online looking for postings and websites that promoted terrorism. Because of their diverse ethnic backgrounds and native language capabilities, they could interact under ‘legends’b or fake identities and communicate with aspiring terrorists in a convincing way, even in private chatrooms like Telegram predecessor Paltalk. These “digital undercover officers” would identify persons of concern, and if investigative thresholds were met, an inquiry would begin involving the digital undercover, a civilian intelligence analyst, and a detective working as a team on the case.

It was one of these teams that in December 2007 detected the split within a New York City-based Islamist organization, the Islamic Thinkers Society (ITS), which gave rise to Revolution Muslim. Younus Abdullah Muhammed along with Youssef al-Khattab split off from ITS to create the new group because they felt the Islamic Thinkers Group was not extreme or active enough.8 

The NYPD had been closely monitoring ITS activities both online and in New York City. ITS was essentially the U.S. branch of a salafi-jihadi support group called al-Muhajiroun, which had been banned by the British government in the wake of the July 7, 2005, London bombings.9 c 

Largely unwelcome in New York City mosques, ITS organized provocative events, like the desecration of the American flag, in neighborhoods populated by a Muslim majority as well as in public spaces such as Times Square.d The group operated with impunity in the United States and was perceived as an extreme fringe group. 

As an NYPD intelligence report noted at the time, the split between ITS and Revolution Muslim concerned the NYPD, which correctly understood the fracture as a faultline that could result in an even more extreme splinter organization. NYPD Intelligence Division analysts noticed at the time that ITS had begun “to fragment into a handful of small, overlapping groups, most of whom [were] distancing themselves from ITS leadership.”10 Furthermore, the NYPD team assessed that “former members of ITS who are distancing themselves [from the group] are inherently more volatile and pose a greater threat to security.”11

2. Investigation and Penetration Phase: Beginning the Investigation
When it came time to open a new investigation, legal oversight and approval was crucial. The NYPD is bound by the U.S. Constitution and Federal Court Guidelines called the Handschu Guidelines; these provide the overarching boundaries within which the NYPD and Intelligence Division leadership is obligated to work. Legal staff, including the Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters, were required to provide final approval to open any new investigation regarding “political activity” when it was determined that a group or individual’s activity crossed the legal threshold.

As Revolution Muslim finalized its split with ITS, the NYPD opened up an active investigation into the group because of the “reasonable suspicion of links to unlawful activity,” as per the Handschu regulations.12 Once this occurred in early 2008, the NYPD could begin the process of inserting a deep undercover officer or confidential informant into Revolution Muslim. One NYPD undercover officer had already penetrated ITS by this time. ITS and Revolution Muslim were two of the highest profile investigations within the NYPD Intelligence Division between 2005 and 2011.13 

The NYPD Intelligence Division Undercover (UC) program, whose origins date back to Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt and the fight against the Black Hand crime syndicate in 1905,14 is unique in the world. As previously noted, it consists of young officers—“typically 22-26 years old—almost all born abroad or first generation, all U.S. citizens, and all with native fluency in a variety of languages. Since 9/11, the cadre has consisted of men and women with roots in over a dozen countries, mostly South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa … These rookies enter the Department via the Intelligence Division rather than the Police Academy. Hand chosen, they [are] smart, highly motivated, and fully understanding of the complexity of what they [are] about to do as professionals.”15 

As UCs, they never enter an NYPD facility. They go through an intense six-month training program run by the undercover unit itself, usually in hotel rooms or locations far from New York City. The training class consists of one student at a time, and instructors are often former UCs who understand the professional and personal issues that might arise when a person lives full-time as someone other than him/herself. The pressure on the UCs, their handlers, and their managers is intense as the stakes are high—to the UC and the investigation they are involved in.16

The UCs are a cadre of officers who have blended naturally with the persons, clusters, and organizations under investigation. They were critical in thwarting a number of cases, including one of the 15 Revolution Muslim-linked cases called the “Arabian Knightz.” In this case, Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte, both of New Jersey, were arrested in June 2010 on their way to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization to kill individuals whose beliefs and practices did not accord with their ideology. Both Alessa and Almonte were associates of Younus Abdullah Muhammad and members of the Revolution Muslim organization.17

As Almonte and Alessa’s plan to join al-Shabaab came together, a remarkable 23-year-old NYPD undercover officer of Egyptian background was invited to join them after he spent months engaging with them. Subsequently, a joint NYPD-New Jersey Joint Terrorism Task Force operation was conducted. After the arrest of Almonte and Alessa at JFK Airport while on their way to Somalia via Egypt, the case became public. As per Intelligence Division policy, the UC’s parents and his girlfriend (later his wife) had no idea he had been living a separate life as an NYPD Intelligence Division UC for the previous four years.18

Similarly, the NYPD ran an operation that required cooperation from both the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan and the Pakistani government to disrupt a New York City member of the Revolution Muslim network from joining al-Qa`ida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. When Staten Island resident Abdel Hameed Shehadeh traveled to Pakistan in 2008 for jihadi training he was turned back at the airport by Pakistani authorities based on intelligence provided by a different NYPD undercover officer. Shehadeh had volunteered his plan to the undercover officer who was part of the Shehadeh cluster investigation in a car less than 24 hours before his scheduled departure to Islamabad.19 e 

Another backbone of the Intelligence Division operations involved using confidential informants (CIs) to get close to those persons, clusters, or organizations under investigation. Since its post-9/11 restart, the Intelligence Division understood and stayed firmly committed to the policy of avoiding any action that might be interpreted as entrapment. Division management at all levels knew this would be a first line of defense in prosecution of a terrorist case. 

Entrapment was indeed the initial defense strategy in the case against another of the 15 Revolution Muslim-linked cases, Jose Pimental of New York City, a self-radicalized internet disciple of AQAP’s Anwar al-Awlaki and Revolution Muslim.20 According to the statement of facts when he ultimately pleaded guilty, Pimental had been in contact with Younus Abdullah Muhammed, volunteering to him that he was a big fan of Revolution Muslim.21

Pimental was arrested on the evening of November 19, 2011 by members of the NYPD bomb squad as he finalized the construction of three homemade explosive devices in an apartment in Washington Heights.22 His plan had been “to assassinate members of the U.S. military returning from active duty in Afghanistan.”23

The multi-year investigation of Pimental by the Intelligence Division required two confidential informants and an undercover officer.24

A screen capture from a video posted to YouTube by Revolution Muslim showing Younus Abdullah Muhammad (aka Jesse Morton) preaching on 43rd and Broadway in New York City on May 1, 2010.

3. Intelligence Collection and Analysis Phase: Understanding the threat
The Analytic Unit of the department’s Intelligence Division was created in 2002 as part of the city’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.25 Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly tasked former CIA official and NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence, David Cohen, with the responsibility to create a robust civilian analyst cadre embedded in the department. The proviso was that they come from the best schools and have relevant backgrounds.26

The unit was a unique experiment among traditional law enforcement organizations as it comprised more than two dozen civilian experts—lawyers; academics; former corporate consultants and investment bankers; veterans of the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the Council on Foreign Relations; and graduates of top national security graduate school programs at Columbia, Princeton, Georgetown, Tufts, and John Hopkins, among others.27 Yet, it sits at the heart of a law enforcement agency.

The Division hired its first of many civilian analysts in 2002 to help identify the “dots,” connect the “dots,” and then interpret what they meant and where they led. Bridging the cultural gap between civilian and uniformed personnel was critical to the success of the Intelligence Division.28 This was helped by the management decision that, for operational security reasons, the reporting of each investigative unit—whether the undercover unit or those handling confidential informants—was compartmented from one another. As a follow-on decision, at the working level, only the civilian analyst(s) involved in an investigation was authorized to see the reporting from all CIs and UCs involved in that case. It therefore fell to analysts to collate the information, analyze it, identify gaps, and set intelligence collection requirements for both the UC and CI programs. This empowerment of the civilian analysts helped make them full partners with the investigators.

The unit’s work was based on unclassified, open source research; its own investigative findings; and analysis of daily operational reports filed by the UCs and CIs. A team of analysts assessed, vetted, and tracked Revolution Muslim’s links both within the United States as well as overseas and made key judgements about its likely trajectory that seem quite prescient today.f

Over the course of the next decade, the NYPD analysts worked with federal agencies and international partners as those international links became more relevant. For example, in 2010, the analytic unit identified that Revolution Muslim was in contact via chat rooms and email with like-minded individuals in the United Kingdom and then passed that intelligence through a direct NYPD partnership with the British Metropolitan Police, which led to the arrest of Bilal Zaheer Ahmad, an extremist blogger from Wolverhampton.29

Bilal Zaheer Ahmad had been provided the password to Revolution Muslim’s website by Younus Abdullah Muhammad and given permission to post messages. In November 2010, Ahmad praised Roshonara Choudhry for attempting to kill a British member of parliament over his support for the Iraq War. He also posted a list of 383 members of parliament who had voted for the Iraq War, along with suggestions on how to get in to see them and a link to a store selling a weapon similar to that used in Choundhry’s attack. Ahmad told Morton that the purpose of the post was to “make those MPs fearful.”30

Intelligence sharing between the NYPD and British police and intelligence services also contributed to the December 2010 arrests of British Revolution Muslim acolytes Mohammed Chowdhury, Shah Rahman, Gurukanth Desai, and Abdul Miah. The group were planning to attack the London Stock Exchange, utilize mail bombs, and launch a “Mumbai-style” atrocity in the United Kingdom.31

4. Crushing the Network: Prosecution and Arrest
Despite the arrests of members of the extended Revolution Muslim network between 2008 and 2010 in the United States and overseas, the group remained resilient and viable. Its leader, Younus Abdullah Muhammad, continued to recruit and radicalize Westerners to al-Qa`ida’s ideology and terrorism. He helped provide content for and distribute an online English-language magazine, Jihad Recollections, and then an al-Qa`ida-sponsored imitator to it, Inspire, which was first published in the summer of 2010. The primary creator and editor of both publications was Samir Khan, a former member of the Revolution Muslim network who had moved to Yemen to join al-Awlaki in 2009.32 

Khan, a former Maspeth, Queens, resident was a member of Revolution Muslim, despite having moved to North Carolina. Before he departed the United States for Yemen in 2009, he came to meet with Revolution Muslim leadership in New York City.33 He met with Younus Abdullah Muhammed and other Revolution Muslim members, including an undercover NYPD officer who had penetrated the core of Revolution Muslim (a different officer from the two UCs previously mentioned). Indeed, the night before Khan departed secretly for Yemen from JFK Airport, he even slept over at the UC’s apartment.34

It took a unique triple partnership between the NYPD Intelligence Division; the Eastern District of Virginia and its Assistant United States attorney, Gordon D. Kromberg; and the Washington Field Office of the FBI to crush the Revolution Muslim network via prosecution and arrests. The New York FBI office and United States Attorney’s Office from the Eastern and Southern districts had declined to pursue the broader matter of the Revolution Muslim network.35

The opportunity to prosecute the case in Virginia presented itself when a young Revolution Muslim convert in Northern Virginia, Zachary Chesser, published a death threat on Revolution Muslim’s website against the creators of the TV show “South Park” for an episode which they regarded as mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The threat provided the addresses of the creators and urged online readers to “pay them a visit.”36 Chesser also posted online a hit list of people for violent extremists to ‘take out’ and a message from al-Awlaki that explicitly called for the South Park creators’ assassination.37 

As Younus Abdullah Muhammad noted, “I had given Chesser backdoor access to the site, though I wondered about his judgment. I saw the death threat and I thought, Oh, no. I’m dead. It was as a direct result of this that in the spring of 2011, a jury in the Eastern District of Virginia indicted me for incitement to terrorism, and the U.S. requested my extradition from Morocco where I had moved to teach.”38

By the summer of 2010, Revolution Muslim began to fracture. Chesser was arrested on July 21, 2010, when he attempted to travel to Somalia to join al-Shabaab. He was charged with providing material support to al-Shabaab and later also pleaded guilty to communicating threats and soliciting violent extremists to desensitize law enforcement, a quite innovative terrorism charge. Four days after Chesser’s arrest, Younus Abdullah Muhammed fled to Morocco, where he resided until his arrest on U.S. charges on May 26, 2011.39

Meanwhile, Samir Khan, now in Yemen with AQAP and al-Awlaki, had been authorized by Younus Abdullah Muhammed to post materials on the Revolution Muslim website, even while he was in Yemen with AQAP. The previous year, the two had collaborated on two articles for the first two online editions of Jihad Recollections.40

Back in July 2010, Younus Abdullah Muhammed had posted the first issue of Inspire, the English-language magazine supporting al-Qa`ida, on the Revolution Muslim website. The magazine included an eight-page article titled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” with detailed instructions regarding the construction of an explosive device.41 This very same article would subsequently be used as the recipe for the explosive devices in a series of terrorist plots in the West. These included the Tsarnaev brothers’ attack on the Boston Marathon in April 2013 as well the bomb attacks in the Chelsea district of New York in 2016 and the tunnel to the Port Authority in 2018 by Ahmad Khan Rahimi and (allegedly) Akayad Ullah, respectively.42

The next blow to the extended Revolution Muslim network came from the sky on September 30, 2011. Although he was not the primary target, Samir Khan was killed in a U.S. drone strike along with al-Awlaki, in al-Jawf, a province in northern Yemen bordering Saudi Arabia.43

5. Loose Ends: Members of the Network on the Periphery Who Later Activated
A number of ‘lone actors’ connected to the Revolution Network have become involved in terrorist activity. For example, Rezwan Ferdaus of Ashland, Massachusetts, was charged in September 2011 with plotting to attack the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol using large remote-controlled aircraft filled with C-4 plastic explosives. In February 2010, Ferdaus emailed Younus Abdullah Muhammed asking for counsel regarding his duties as a Muslim and whether martyrdom operations were proper practice. Younus Abdullah Muhammed replied that martyrdom operations must be judged by intention but can have “enormous benfits [sic] in a war of attrition.”44

Another case involved Colleen R. LaRose, aka “Jihad Jane,” of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She was charged in March 2010 with a variety of terrorism-related offenses, including plotting to kill Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who has been the subject of several death threats based on his artwork depicting the Prophet Muhammad. According to the statement of facts in his guilty plea, Younus Abdullah Muhammed “notified Sheikh Abdullah Faisal, a Muslim cleric convicted in the United Kingdom of soliciting murder, that LaRose was a subscriber to Revolution Muslim YouTube accounts.”45

Yet another example was Antonio Benjamin Martinez of Baltimore, Maryland, who was arrested and charged with plotting to bomb a military recruiting station in December 2010. One month prior to his arrest, Martinez viewed a video of Usama bin Ladin and multiple terror training camp video clips on the Revolution Muslim website.46

Other terrorism cases in the Islamic State era have also had connections to Revolution Muslim, demonstrating how effective network proselytization efforts can have an effect that goes beyond any single conflict. 

It was recently revealed that at least three Americans who went to fight in Iraq and Syria for the Islamic State had been in contact with Revolution Muslim before its demise.47 Two of the individuals in question were a married couple, John and Tania Georgalias, who traveled to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in September 2013.48 Tania left after a few days, but John Georgalias went on to become a leader in the Islamic State. The third American who traveled to join the Islamic State was Russell Dennison, who was heavily influenced by Revolution Muslim and Younus Abdullah Muhammed directly.49

Another American who became involved in terrorist activity on behalf of the Islamic State after contact with Revolution Muslim was Nicholas Young, who was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for material support of the Islamic State.50 Young had in-person contact with Revolution Muslim member Zachary Chesser, frequented the Revolution website, and participated in the Authentic Tauheed Paltalk online chat room connected to the group. 

Lessons Learned for the Virtual Caliphate Era
The Revolution Muslim network investigation was one of the highest-profile investigations at the NYPD Intelligence Division between 2007 and 2011. This helped dismantle the most dangerous and influential terrorism network in the United States during this time period.51 Since its inception, many had dismissed Revolution Muslim as amateurish. Yet the group developed a sophisticated and effective methodology for promoting “open source jihad,” incorporated new social media techniques and mediums to advance online radicalization and recruitment, promoted English-language al-Qa`ida propaganda, and experimented with covert communications across a transnational network.

As a local radicalization hub, Revolution Muslim took advantage of the free speech environment in the United States to unambiguously radicalize and mobilize Westerners to participate in terrorism. As a transnational network, it sought to enmesh its activity with that of existing jihadi terrorist groups like al-Qa`ida, al-Shabaab, and AQAP.

Federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg, who prosecuted the cases of Younus Abdullah Muhammed and other prominent figures at the core of Revolution Muslim, stated, “It is amazing from the perspective of time to look back at Revolution Muslim. In our pleading we listed … 15 different defendants … who engage[d] in terrorism or attempted to engage in terrorism [and] all [of whom] were connected to Revolution Muslim.”52

As New York City Police Commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, commented, “Fortunately, NYPD Intelligence Division detectives were in a position to learn exactly how Morton used the Internet to conspire to solicit murder, and how he encouraged others to solicit the murder of an artist whose material he deemed offensive. His guilty plea was the result of NYPD’s monitoring of Morton’s activities, combined with the investigative and prosecutorial expertise of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for Eastern District of Virginia, made for a strong case, in addition to a strong partnership.”53

As the Islamic State loses control of its terrain in Syria and Iraq, it is likely to evolve into more of a transnational virtual caliphate, which is what one set of researchers have defined as “a radicalized community online – that empowers the global Salafi-jihadi movement.”54 In doing so, it would revert to a small group of violent activists who seek to mobilize adherents through the multi-faceted use of online mediums. In short, it would resemble Revolution Muslim, but on a much larger scale.

If past is prologue to the future, there are valuable insights to be gleaned from the effort to combat Revolution Muslim. One lesson of the effort to combat Revolution Muslim is that countering a fluid terrorist organization, like a virtual Islamic State, will require the ability to predict and mimic the network’s rapid adaptations. One of the reasons most of the plots linked to Revolution Muslim were thwarted, was that the NYPD successfully integrated undercover officers into the heart of both the Islamic Thinkers Society and Revolution Muslim, providing critical human intelligence (HUMINT) about those individuals who planned to operationalize their ideology and the rapid shifts in the expression of that ideology.55 

The increased use of digital HUMINT, comprised of digital undercover officers and informants who can navigate the dark web and private communication channels of WhatsApp and Telegram will be vital, particularly if a virtual Islamic State relies more heavily upon encrypted operational instructions than Revolution Muslim did. This will require the sustained development and devotion of additional resources to this effort by federal and certain local law enforcement and intelligence organizations, as well as networked coordination with overseas partners.

A second key lesson of the effort against Revolution Muslim is that the effort to counter virtual jihadist recruitment will be an ongoing struggle, and law enforcement and intelligence should not over-emphasize the collapse of any particular group. Revolution Muslim emerged out of the collapse and re-forming of earlier groups that were part of a larger network. Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State both expanded upon Revolution Muslim’s efforts even as the group itself fell apart.

With the 2017 arrest of Jamaican extremist cleric Abdullah Faisal in Jamaica (as a result of an NYPD investigation), the preachers that al-Muhajiroun, ITS, and Revolution Muslims’ circles once revolved around have been mostly removed from the playing field.g Their removal is important, the template Revolution Muslim pioneered remains viable for other terrorist groups to adopt, use, and weaponize to deadly effect despite the group’s disbandment in 2011. 

Consequently, while the Islamic State appears to be defeated on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq and its appeal diminished, the group’s continued threat should not be underestimated.

Relegated to primarily operating in the virtual realm, the Islamic State could morph into an almost virtual entity, with minimal need for a geographic footprint. This almost completely virtual caliphate, not unlike Revolution Muslim, “would manifest itself in the form of an expanded, transnational terrorist threat from dispersed but loyal operators,” as United States Central Command Commander General Joseph Votel has argued.56

As Revolution Muslim demonstrated, even a virtual organization with a dispersed network has the ability to inspire deadly attacks worldwide.     CTC

Jesse Morton was the founder of Revolution Muslim and a former jihadi extremist. After serving a prison sentence for terrorist activity, he is now an executive officer at Parallel Networks, a United States-based nonprofit dedicated to combating violent extremism. Mitchell D. Silber is the former Director of Intelligence Analysis at the New York City Police Department and is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s graduate School for Public and International Affairs. 

Substantive Notes
[a] This phenomenon was discussed in the NYPD’s 2007 monograph “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” p. 37. The echo chamber is “virtual networks of like-minded individuals around the world who reinforce the individual’s beliefs and commitment and further legitimize them.”

[b] A legend is a spy or undercover officer’s claimed background or biography.

[c] Al-Muhajiroun (The Emigrants) was designated a terrorist salafi-jihadi organization in the wake of the July 7, 2005, London underground and bus attack and was linked to international terrorism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. The group operated in the United Kingdom from January 14, 1986, until the British government announced an intended ban in August 2005. The group became notorious for its September 2002 conference, “The Magnificent 19,” praising the 9/11 attacks.

[d] On June 8, 2005, the ITS publicly desecrated and ripped up an American flag on the street in New York City during a rally on 74th Street and 37th Avenue in Queens. This event, which its members called “Operation: Desecrate American Flag,” was videotaped by the Islamic Thinkers Society and can be seen on the internet. The group’s five-minute video begins with a man saying in English, “Just to show where our loyalty belongs to, you see this flag here? It’s going to go on the floor [sic]. And to us, our loyalty does not belong to this flag, our loyalty belongs to Allah.” Another speaker refers to the mandate for “Islam to dominate over all other religions, to dominate the world, even though the non-Muslims may hate it.” “Islamic Thinkers Society desecrates flag,” The Investigative Project on Terrorism, June 8, 2005.

[e] “According to court filings and the evidence introduced at trial, in early 2008 Shehadeh devised a plan to travel to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan in order join al-Qa`ida or the Taliban. In furtherance of his plan, on June 13, 2008, Shehadeh flew on a one-way airline ticket from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Islamabad, Pakistan. After Pakistani officials denied him entry, Shehadeh told investigators from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) that he had traveled to Pakistan to visit a university. However, the true purpose of Shehadeh’s trip was to wage violent jihad against United States military forces.” “Staten Island Man Convicted of Making False Statements in A Matter Involving International Terrorism,” U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of New York, March 25, 2013.

[f] Some of these key judgments from late 2007 included: “While not known to be in the planning stages of any violent activity at present, ITS nonetheless poses a security risk as a possible incubator, and due to its members’ links to individuals of concern overseas [like Jamaican extremist cleric Sheikh Abdullah al Faisal];” “the primary split of concern is between ITS core members and a newly emerged group called Revolution Muslim, organized by Yousef al Khattab and Jesse Morton, that views Jamaican extremist cleric Sheikh Abdullah al Faisal as their spiritual leader and Emir;” “Shaikh Faisal has a storied history of radicalizing young men and is credited with having helped radicalize Germaine Lindsey, one of the 7/7 bombers. He was convicted under terrorism charges of incitement in the United Kingdom for having urged his congregants to kill unbelievers.” See “The Islamic Thinkers Society: Case Study and Assessment,” NYPD Intelligence Division – Intelligence Analysis Unit, 2008.

[g] Al-Muhajiroun founder Omar Bakri Mohamed remains imprisoned in Lebanon, and two other leading figures in the group—Anjem Choudary and Mohammed Mizanur Rahman (aka Abu Baraa)— each received a sentence of five and a half years in 2016.

[1] Author interview, Jesse Morton, aka Younus Abdullah Muhammad, February 2018.

[2] “Indictment,” United States v. Jesse Curtis Morton, United States District Court for the District of Eastern Virginia, May 13, 2011.

[3] “The Islamic Thinkers Society: Case Study and Assessment,” NYPD Intelligence Division – Intelligence Analysis Unit, 2008.

[4] Rukmini Callimachi, “Once a Qaeda Recruiter, Now a Voice Against Jihad,” New York Times, August 29, 2016; “Statement of Facts,” United States v. Jesse Curtis Morton, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division.

[5] Ibid., Tamar Lapin, “Former DC transit cop convicted on terrorism charges,” New York Post, December 19, 2017; Jesse Morton email correspondence with Tania Joy, March 2018.

[6] “Sentence Hearing,” United States v. Yousef al-Khattab, Eastern District of Virginia, April 25, 2014.

[7] “Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty to Using Internet to Solicit Murder and Encourage Violent Extremism,” U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Virginia, February 9, 2012.

[8] Author interview, Jesse Morton, aka Younus Abdullah Muhammad, February 2018.

[9] For more on the nexus between ITS, Revolution Muslim, and al-Muhajiroun, see Paul Cruickshank, “The Growing Danger from Radical Islamist Groups in the United States,” CTC Sentinel 3:8 (2010). 

[10] “The Islamic Thinkers Society: Case Study and Assessment.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Guidelines for Investigations Involving Political Activity,” New York Civil Liberties Union.

[13] Author interview, David Cohen, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence (2002-2013), March 2018.

[14] Jay Maeder, “NYPD mob cop Joe Petrosino: The Italian-American Crime Fighter who Battled the Black Hand,” New York Daily News, August 14, 2017.

[15] David Cohen and Mitchell Silber, “NYPD’s Intelligence Division: Answering the Terrorism Challenge Post 9/11,” Cipher Brief, September 15, 2016.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty.”

[18] Author interview, David Cohen, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence (2002-2013), March 2018.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty.”

[21] Ibid.

[22] Joseph Goldstein and William K. Rashbaum, “City Bomb Plot Suspect Is Called Fan of Qaeda Cleric,” New York Times, November 20, 2011.

[23] “Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty.”

[24] Author interview, David Cohen, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence (2002-2013), March 2018.

[25] Alan Feuer, “The Terror Translators,” New York Times, September 17, 2010.

[26] Author interview, David Cohen, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence (2002-2013), March 2018.

[27] Feuer.

[28] Robert F. Worth, “In a Quiet Office Somewhere, Watching Terrorists,” New York Times, February 23, 2005.

[29] “Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty.”

[30] Ibid.

[31] “London Stock Exchange Bomb Plot Admitted by Four Men,” BBC, February 1, 2012.

[32] Robbie Brown and Kim Severson, “2nd American in Strike Waged Qaeda Media War,” New York Times, September 30, 2011.

[33] J. David Goodman, “American Who Waged ‘Media Jihad’ Is Said to Be Killed in Awlaki Strike,” New York Times, September 30, 2011.

[34] Author interview, David Cohen, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence (2002-2013), March 2018.

[35] Ibid.

[36] “Statement of Facts,” United States v. Zachary Adam Chesser, United States District Court for Eastern District of Virginia, October 20, 2010.

[37] “Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty.”

[38] Author interview, Jesse Morton, aka Younus Abdullah Muhammad, February 2018.

[39] “Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty.”

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Richard Valdmanis, “Boston bomb suspect influenced by Al Qaeda: expert witness,” Reuters, March 23, 2015; Sophia Rosenbaum, “Chelsea Bombing Suspect May Have Used Plans from Inspire Magazine,” New York Post, September 26, 2016; Aaron Katersky and Emily Shapiro, “NYC terror suspect seems to have been prepared to die in attack, source says,” ABC News, December 11, 2017.

[43] Mark Mazzetti, Charlie Savage, and Scott Shane, “How a U.S. Citizen Came to Be in America’s Cross Hairs,” New York Times, March 9, 2013.

[44] “Leader of Revolution Muslim Pleads Guilty.”

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Seamus Hughes, and Bennett Clifford, “The Travelers: American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq,” George Washington University Program on Extremism, February 2018.

[48] Jesse Morton email correspondence with Tania Joya, March 2018.

[49] Jesse Morton email correspondence with Russel Dennison, 2013-2015; Meleagrou-Hitchens, Hughes, and Clifford.

[50] Lapin; Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Prince, Asserting Power, Brings Clerics to Heel,” New York Times, November 5, 2017.

[51] Dina Temple-Raston, “Revolution Muslim’ A Gateway For Would-Be Jihadis,” NPR, October 13, 2010; author interview, David Cohen, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence (2002-2013), March 2018.

[52] “Sentencing Hearing,” United States v. Yousef al-Khattab, Eastern District of Virginia, April 25, 2014.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Harleen Gambhir, “The Virtual Caliphate: ISIS’ Information Warfare,” Institute for the Study of War, December 2016.

[55] Author interview, SSU undercover officers in Revolution Muslim and ITS, fall 2017.

[56] General Joseph Votel, LTC Christina Bembenek, Charles Hans, Jeffery Mouton, and Allison Spencer “#Virtual Caliphate: Defeating ISIL on the Physical Battlefield is Not Enough,” Center for New American Security, January 12, 2017.


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