On February 7, 2016, Musa Cerantonio told a friend that his fame as Australia’s best-known ISIS supporter had become a burden. Fellow ISIS supporters felt mysteriously compelled to email or call him before committing crimes. “Why,” Cerantonio lamented, “does everyone, before they do stupid shit, get in contact with me?” In this case, the doer of stupid shit was Alo-Bridget Namoa, the “Bonnie” half of the terror couple she herself had dubbed “the jihadi Bonnie and Clyde.” She and Clyde, a.k.a. Sameh Bayda, were both later convicted of terror offenses. Namoa had contacted Cerantonio, the Australian authorities tapping his phone later revealed, because she needed to know where to get an ISIS flag in Sydney. ISIS supporters were treating him like a jihadist help desk. If you see her, Cerantonio told his friend, “slap her for me.” Later that year, Cerantonio was arrested for trying to travel by boat from Australia to ISIS territory in the southern Philippines. He has been in prison ever since, and he has 13 months left on his sentence.
But if you try dialing the help desk in 13 months, you might not get the encouragement you’d expect. Last year, Cerantonio wrote to me from Port Phillip Prison, in Melbourne, and told me that he had renounced ISIS.
In block letters—the Arabic transcriptions neatly bedecked with diacritical marks, all in the right places—he explained his journey back from jihad. “I have been wrong these last 17 years,” he wrote. “Seeing individuals dedicate themselves to tyrannical death cults led by suicidal maniacs is bad enough. Knowing that I may have contributed to their choices is terrible.” Perhaps he should be returned to the help desk before his sentence is up. “I hope that my experiences may be of help in drawing others away from the same mistakes.”
[Graeme Wood: Maybe you have to be disagreeable to convert]
His rehabilitation, which he narrated in detail, is as bizarre as his career as an ISIS propagandist was. Born in 1985 to a middle-class Italian Australian family outside Melbourne, Cerantonio converted to Islam as a teenager. He showed an unusual inclination for linguistics and Islamic history, and within a few years a Saudi-funded satellite-TV channel, Iqraa, had hired him to preach on air, on subjects including Arabic philology and Islamic readings of The Wizard of Oz. Eventually his message grew too political and the channel fired him and, he said, attempted to administer a beating as part of his severance. When ISIS arose, this neofundamentalist autodidact had both the knowledge and the on-camera charisma necessary to influence thousands of fellow Muslims and help persuade many to immigrate to Syria and Iraq in order to fight and die for the new caliphate. If you seek out English translations of early ISIS documents, you may find his handiwork.
In prison, he began to study the Quran in greater detail, and focused on the aspects that most puzzled him. Among these was the figure called Dhu-l Qarnayn, “the two-horned one,” who appears in the Quran’s 18th chapter and is believed by many to refer to Alexander the Great. Cerantonio did not see a resemblance between Dhu-l Qarnayn and the Alexander of history—but he noted similarities between Dhu-l Qarnayn and a heavily fabulized version of Alexander’s story written in Aramaic. He considered that the Aramaic version may have plagiarized the Quran, but after acquiring a copy of the Aramaic and translating it for himself, he determined that the reverse was more likely. (“I always knew that being proficient in Aramaic would one day prove useful.”)
“Realizing that Dhu-l Qarnayn was not at all a real person but was rather based on a fictional account of Alexander the Great instantly left me with only one possible conclusion: The Quran was not divinely inspired,” he wrote. It had taken Alexander the Great fan fiction as fact. “Of course I would have preferred to have discovered all that 17 years ago and avoided much trouble.” He has therefore abandoned not only ISIS but Islam and religion as a whole. He is an atheist and admires the God Delusion author Richard Dawkins.
After the first letter, we traded correspondence and spoke by Skype. He now goes by his birth name, Robert, but when pressed on subjects related to ISIS doctrine will sometimes “answer your question as ‘Musa,’” channeling his former self to explain the ISIS view before recovering his “Rob” identity and speaking as his current self. He said he had been reluctant to go public about his apostasy—less because he feared being murdered by jihadists (apostasy is a capital offense in Islam) than because his detractors will say he’s just trying to get out of prison early.
He said his conversion was “not making my time any easier in here.” And if he wanted to feign rehabilitation, he would have done so years ago, at sentencing, and not in this roundabout and arcane way involving Syriac texts and Hellenistic historiography. I asked him why the Alexander stuff had convinced him that ISIS was wrong, whereas the group’s practices of mass murder and sex slavery had never tipped him off. He said the latter were consistent with the religion, while the Alexander plagiarism failed intellectual tests on their own terms.
Whenever a prominent member of a terror group leaves it, he inspires a great deal of curiosity about how he was cured of his evil beliefs—which seem so durable when they are held that they may lead to violent death. So much of Cerantonio’s story is idiosyncratic that I am not sure what, if anything, can be used to deprogram others. Most ISIS supporters care little about the historical and linguistic minutiae that motivated Cerantonio. Teaching jihadists Aramaic is not a cure easily scaled up. Moreover, a rehab program that encourages patients to give up Islam (a religion practiced benignly by nearly all Muslims) instead of merely giving up terrorism is bound to be controversial.
[Read: The softer side of jihadists]
Cerantonio himself said that the programs in prisons, in Australia and abroad, are almost all rubbish. They raise objections to jihadism that the jihadists can easily refute. He called the suggestion that jihadists be exposed to “true Islam,” such as the more moderate texts of medieval theologians, “idiotic.” “It doesn’t work,” he told me. “It has failed miserably time after time.” But he is equally withering about Dawkins’s polemics against Islam, even though he now shares Dawkins’s zero-calorie theology. “I’m no longer a Muslim,” he said, “but I still object to the things he’s saying. When he writes about Islam, he gets things wrong.” Dawkins quotes a scripture that claims martyrs will be given 72 virgins in paradise. “That hadith is not authentic!” Cerantonio said with frustration. “Dawkins! You’re smart. You do so much research. Why couldn’t you do just a little research on this?” Opponents of ISIS, even smart ones, suddenly make themselves stupid when combatting jihadism and assume—wrongly—that the jihadists themselves are stupid.
When Cerantonio now meets jihadists—he told me they are numerous, and unrepentant, in Australian prisons—he experiments with different approaches. “I can actually speak to hard-core jihadists on a level that they understand,” he said. At times, the approach that has worked is not even a coherent one. He described convincing two jihadists by explaining to them the mechanisms of evolution. In effect, he told me, he just “went at them hard” and outlined, without condescension, how a world without a divine Creator might look, how it made sense, and how it might be an alternative to their current beliefs.
“Both of them have drastically changed their lives,” he claimed. “They now denounce everything they were standing for before. I mean, they were planning to carry out a terrorist attack here in Melbourne—blow themselves up in a public square!” Now, he said, they’re not religious at all. “I thought, wow, I mean, surely, it can’t always be that easy. But who knows? Maybe it is.”
Last year in Saudi Arabia, I visited a prison that purported to deprogram jihadists by turning them into productive employees of a small business—complete with a CEO (himself a prisoner), an HR department, and a comptroller. I couldn’t tell how successful the prison’s strategy would be. All of the prisoners were still in jail, and subject to who knows what punishment if they lapsed. Beyond any doubt, however, is the failure of virtually every previous attempt to deprogram jihadists. So far, nothing seems to have worked better than defeating ISIS on the battlefield, reducing its caliphate to rubble, and inviting its followers to consider whether God might be sending them a message in the form of U.S. aerial bombardment. But drone strikes are expensive. Maybe Aramaic is worth a try.