One of the latest Americans to answer a calling to fight with the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) is Donald Morgan, 44, year-old former Catholic from North Carolina. An exclusive NBC interview with Morgan (see below), taped last summer when he was in Beirut, was recently released.
One of the most troubling aspects of the rise of the Islamic State is its seemingly magnetic pull that has attracted those diverse as extremist Muslims; college-educated Muslims raised in affluence in Western countries; and converts to Islam.
Morgan is one of those converts. The first part of his life reads like an all-American story. As a young man, he attended a military academy and eventually joined the National Guard. Later, he worked in law enforcement as a sheriff’s deputy.
But the second part of his life triggered a fall into an opposite world, a world of partying, alcohol abuse and violence. Morgan’s dream of joining the 82nd airborne division in the Special Forces was dashed when he failed to complete the obligatory boot camp. Afterwards, he landed a job as a sheriff’s deputy. He was terminated from the job after a short stint.
Eventually, the fall ended with a two-year prison stay after he fired a pistol into a packed restaurant. After his release, it appeared that Morgan had found stability and self-esteem. He landed a job as a finance manager in the auto industry and devoted himself to body building. Morgan eventually married a female bodybuilder and they had a child together in 2001.
Six years later the marriage dissolved. The next year, Morgan converted to Islam. In an interview with NBC, Morgan said, “Islam presented this package that said: ‘this is, this is it…this is the path and this is the way you’re going to go, there is not going to be this way, that way.’”
Still, Islam was not a major part of Morgan’s life until 2012 when he said he realized "that at some point you have to make a commitment.”
He says, “It was… right before Ramadan that my life changed. And what changed that was me making the decision to practice what I preach.”
Morgan’s radicalization appears to have been a self-process. A long-time acquaintance said that Morgan began keeping close tabs on the wars in the Middle East, stopped body building, was significantly less social and worked at unusual hours.
“(Morgan’s) Facebook posts were a bit extreme at times, and there were some volatile statements in there. Some things that he would say that would make me think, ‘you know this guy was going to the extreme with this,’” said Bryan Beaver, a co-worker of Morgan’s for 15 years. “Derogatory statements toward Israel, some statements about infidels. Things like that.”
During that period, Morgan took on the outward appearances of a Muslim, shaving his head and wearing a small hat. He began an Islamic Center in the center of town.
“I would not classify myself as a radical, but by Western definition, I would be classified as a radical,” Morgan said of his beliefs. “I just consider myself to be a practicing Muslim.”
In January, Morgan began to actualize those beliefs and as well as what had become his new dream: to join the Islamic State. He traveled to Lebanon, where he searched for a way to cross the border into Syria. On Twitter, he changed his name to Abu Omar al-Amreeki and called himself a mujahid, a wager of jihad. Six months later, he had pledged his allegiance to the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi.
However, after an unsuccessful attempt to cross over through Turkey and with money running out, Morgan boarded a plane back to America.
Although he feared being arrested on charges relating to terrorism, he was nabbed at New York’s JFK for the illegal possession of a gun that he had been trying to sell online.