How the anti-Muslim fringe conquered the White House.
Last July, a sharply dressed man named Frank Gaffney walked onto the stage of a crowded convention center in downtown Denver and proceeded to calmly warn his audience that Muslims were working to conquer America from the inside.
Speaking without notes at a glass lectern, Gaffney — who worked, decades ago, as a Pentagon official in the Reagan administration — told the audience that political leaders from both parties had spent years covering up the true threat to the US. It didn’t come from terrorists acting in the name of Islam. It came from Islam itself.
Gaffney said that sharia, the Arabic term for Islamic law, was a “brutally repressive, totalitarian, political, military, and legal program” for gradually subverting Western governments and replacing them with ones that adhere to harsh Islamic dictates. And in the US, those efforts were already well underway.
“This program of subversive, stealthy penetration and takedown is operating. It’s, in fact, been at work for 50 years,” he said. “Our government has been subverted.”
Gaffney wasn’t speaking metaphorically. He accused “agents of Hillary Clinton” of shredding files about Muslim radicals living both inside and outside the US and said that then–Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was surrounded by “a small echo chamber which is filled by Muslim Brotherhood operatives.”
The notion of senior US officials intentionally weakening American national security or appointing advisers who were literal members of a Middle Eastern Islamist movement is preposterous. But it’s important to take Gaffney seriously: He isn’t some little-known crank pumping out Islamophobic literature on the internet, and the event wasn’t a fringe gathering outside the political mainstream.
It was instead the 2016 Western Conservative Summit, a major meeting of thousands of Republican activists in Denver billed as “the largest gathering of conservatives outside of Washington, D.C.” Other featured speakers included then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, major conservative media figures like Hugh Hewitt and Erick Erickson, and two sitting US senators.
Gaffney is an important cog in a vast and growing ecosystem that exists just out of sight of most Americans — one that has spent years pushing the notion that there is a creeping, quiet plot to take over America from within. It is a plan that springs from Islamic scripture itself, and is supported by most mainstream Muslim organizations, most mosques, and, in all likelihood, your Muslim neighbor.
The only way to be safe from the threat, according to Gaffney and other self-proclaimed "counter-jihadists," is to slash Muslim immigration, arrest key leaders of the Muslim American community, and shut down huge numbers of mosques. They have not gone so far as to propose outright ethnic cleansing; Gaffney, in his speech, says he has Muslim friends. Their dream, instead, is to destroy the Muslim American community without kicking out Muslims.
The dire warnings are spread through an influential lobby, slick documentaries, and best-selling books with titles like The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion. And now that fearful vision of Islam has found a home in the Trump White House.
Senior strategist Steve Bannon is a devotee of Gaffney’s ideas, as are National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Trump’s political adviser, Kellyanne Conway, has done polling for Gaffney designed to illustrate the scale of the threat Muslims pose to America. And Trump himself has said things that sound like they could have been ripped from counter-jihadist literature.
When the new president announced his ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, it was widely seen as Trump moving to quickly carry out one of his most explicit — and most controversial — campaign promises. Yet it made no sense as a counterterrorism policy: No immigrant from one of the seven targeted countries has ever killed anyone in a terrorist attack on US soil.
That’s because the real motivation was rooted in counter-jihadist logic. The movement’s thinkers have, for years, advocated a similar ban on Muslim immigration. They look to Europe and see Muslim immigrants creating a continent ridden with terrorism and nearly lost to Islamist subversion. The Muslim ban only makes sense when seen as part of their plan to prevent America from going down the same path — by keeping out as many Muslims as possible.
The counter-jihadist influence in the Trump administration appears far from exhausted. They have long wanted to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization, because they see major American Muslim organizations as Brotherhood fronts — and now that’s reportedly a major priority inside the Trump White House.
Trump’s policies reflect an even scarier kind of prejudice than his own: one with a plan.
The theory: ISIS represents the soul of Islam
Gaffney is the president of the Center for Security Policy, or CSP, a right-wing think tank located just blocks from the White House. In 2010, it convened a panel to study the Islamic threat to America. The group — which included former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency Edward Soyster — called itself “Team B II.”
The original Team B was a working group put together in the ’70s as a kind of devil’s advocate in the Gerald Ford administration. Its goal was to provide a hawkish counterpoint to the softer detente policy toward the Soviet Union favored by the White House. Team B argued that communism was an insatiably aggressive doctrine, one that could not be appeased — a conclusion that would influencing Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy ideology.
Team B II aimed to do something similar, but for radical Islamism and today’s Republican Party. They drew on the arguments of a loose intellectual movement that had coalesced on blogs in the years after 9/11, and had come to refer to itself as the “counter-jihad.”
Counter-jihadists believe that mainstream scholars of Islam, and counterterrorism experts in governments the world over, have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the Islamist threat. Their basic mistake is that they overemphasize differences between Muslims, like the Sunni-Shia split, and assume that ISIS and al-Qaeda are aberrant distortions of Islam.
The truth, counter-jihadists believe, is more like the opposite. They argue that a correct reading of Islamic scripture shows that violence is intrinsic to Islam — that the religious doctrine itself, properly understood, commands Muslims to kill subjugate unbelievers. People who say otherwise — and CSP lumps both George W. Bush and Barack Obama into this category — are either willfully or unintentionally deceiving the American public.
In the years since its publication in 2010, the “Team B II” report — titled “Shariah: The Threat to America” — has become something of a counter-jihadist bible. It’s the clearest and most comprehensive summary of their ideas. To understand what they believe, and why they believe it, you have to understand this report.
The great enemy in the report is something called “sharia.” An Arabic word that literally translates as “law,” it’s the vast body of rules and regulations that guide daily life for believing Muslims — everything from not eating pork to who can lawfully be killed in a time of war to whether to charge interest on bank loans.
But because there is no single authority in Islam (like, say, the pope in the Catholic Church), there is no single, official, agreed-upon interpretation of sharia. The thousands of rules and regulations that collectively make up the body of sharia have been deeply contested among Muslim scholars — and even individual Muslims — since the birth of Islam, with no agreement even on many vital issues.
Team B II argues that sharia is different from similar moral codes in other religions, like the Jewish law that governs the rules for keeping kosher. They argue that sharia is fundamentally political; that its aim is to govern the lives of all people, and not just Muslims, by seizing control of the world’s governments.
“There is ultimately but one sharia,” the report holds. “It is totalitarian in character, incompatible with our Constitution, and a threat to freedom here and around the world. Sharia’s adherents are making a determined, sustained, and well-financed effort to impose it on all Muslims and non-Muslims, alike.”
To make this argument, Team B II’s authors rely heavily on something called “abrogation.” This is a complex concept in Islamic legal theory, but it basically boils down to the idea that when trying to determine the “correct” answer to some legal question — say, whether it’s okay to drink alcohol, for instance — later verses in the Quran carry more weight than earlier ones. That is, the later verses abrogate, or override, the earlier ones.
This stems from the fact that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed not all at once, but rather over a period of 23 years. During that time, the circumstances in which Mohammed and the early Muslim community were living changed quite a bit. The earlier verses of the Quran came down while Mohammad was more of an itinerant preacher in Mecca, whereas the later verses came down during a time when Mohammed controlled the city of Medina and commanded a large Muslim army.
The result is that the later verses tend to be more concerned with real-world administrative rules and military doctrine — including verses about conquering unbelievers — while the earlier verses are more focused on broader, more universal concepts of spirituality.
As a result of the doctrine of abrogation, Team B II claims, all Muslims are obligated to conquer the West and replace its governments with an Islamic theocracy called a caliphate. But one would be hard-pressed to find a single credible Islamic scholar who interprets it this way.
For Islamic legal scholars, abrogation is but one tool used to interpret the Quran, and not an ultimate trump card. And the Quran, like the Bible, contains scriptures that both endorse and reject violence. In the full context of Islamic law, the injunctions to kill and conquer are often interpreted as being specific to that time and place in history, and do not necessarily overrule other, more peaceful verses in the Quran (e.g., “let there be no compulsion in religion”).
Team B II dismisses this as a form of tactical, sharia-sanctioned lying. There is an actual Arabic term for permissible lying in sharia, called taqiyya. It’s an obscure medieval ruling that basically permits Muslims to verbally blaspheme God or renounce their religion without incurring God’s wrath if they are under compulsion to do so.
So, for instance, if a Muslim were traveling in a land where being Muslim could get him killed and is captured by the authorities, he is allowed to say he isn’t Muslim — or even do things like praise pagan gods or slander the Prophet Mohammed — if his survival is on the line, without God getting mad. It’s a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s also a concept generally associated with Shia Islam, as nearly all Sunni Islamic legal scholars reject the concept outright.
But the counter-jihadists have taken this medieval concept and turned it into a devious trick that Muslims are using to hide their true violent intentions.
They assert that the peaceful interpretations of Islam offered by Muslim authorities are a form of taqiyya designed to obscure the true nature of Islam from gullible Westerners. They point to things like the 9/11 hijackers going to strip clubs and drinking alcohol as examples of terrorists using taqiyya to blend in. And while the 9/11 hijackers certainly did those things, and may even have tried to justify their actions by saying they were just trying to blend in, they were all Sunni Muslims and therefore never would’ve used the concept of taqiyya to justify their actions.
“Under Islamic law, lying is not only permissible, but obligatory for Muslims in some situations,” Team B II writes in its report. “What Muslim audiences are required to know about Islam is not the same thing as what non-Muslim Western audiences are allowed to know — or encouraged to think — by Islamic authorities.”
This quickly takes on the character of a conspiracy theory. Any attempt to cite an Islamic authority who takes a different view of the Quran is only proof, to the counter-jihadists, that you are taken in by sharia propaganda. In that sense, arguing with the counter-jihadists is something of an impossible task. It’s a bit like attempting a point-by-point rebuttal of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
How a conspiracy theory goes from the fringes to the White House
When you ask credentialed experts on Islam and terrorism about counter-jihadist theories today, they usually don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“It's hard to reply without sounding snooty,” Will McCants, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, tells me in response to a question about counter-jihadists. “[They] sell a lot of books and scare the hell out of Americans, but their policy recommendations range from vague to downright harmful.”
McCants is not wrong about the books. America Alone, a 2006 book alleging that ”a large majority of Western Muslims support the terrorists’ strategic goals,” cracked the top five of the New York Times’s best-seller list. Several other counter-jihadist books, including The Politically Correct Guide to Islam and Because They Hate, made the best-seller list around the same time.
What few reviews of these books could be found in mainstream publications were not kind. Yale lecturer Daniel Luban wrote that they “can justly be called the new McCarthyism” in a review of the genre published in the Jewish magazine Tablet.
Regardless, the success of counter-jihadist literature spawned a whole mini industry — what author Nathan Lean termed “the Islamophobia Industry.” In 2008, an organization called the Clarion Project distributed 28 million copies of a documentary titled Obsession, which alleged that more than 100 million Muslims were in thrall to “militant Islam.”
Another Clarion video, The Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America, was blurbed by former New York City mayor and current White House cybersecurity adviser Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ). Clarion’s 2015 mini documentary By the Numbers, starring a Muslim woman named Raheel Raza who alleges a majority of her co-religionists want sharia to set national law, has more than 4 million views on YouTube.
These works found a large audience, mostly among conservatives, largely as a result of America’s encounter with Islamic extremism over the course of the 2000s. The 9/11 attacks, interestingly, did not themselves spark an immediate turn against Muslims.
Part of this can be attributed to concerted efforts by the George W. Bush administration to discourage such sentiments. Indeed, just a little over a month after the 9/11 attacks took place, Bush issued a message to commemorate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, stating, "The Islam that we know is a faith devoted to the worship of one God, as revealed through The Holy Qur'an. It teaches the value and the importance of charity, mercy, and peace."
But as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on and more and more American service members died in those countries at the hands of Muslims, and as terrorist attacks in the name of Islam continued to take place around the world, many Americans started to blame Islam in general for the continuing bloodshed.
Under the Obama administration, this took on an overtly partisan flavor. When Bush defended Islam, few Republicans were interested in attacking him. Barack Hussein Obama got no such dispensation: Republicans attacked him as soft on ISIS and claimed he was more interested in protecting “the image of Islam” than in protecting America. Influential right-wing pundits suggested he was an Islamist sympathizer or even a secret Muslim himself.
All of this, combined with Trump’s much more overt anti-Islam rhetoric, has helped turn the Muslim religion into a partisan issue:
Right-wing media, recognizing the appeal of the counter-jihadist message among their audience, has embraced this extreme anti-Islam narrative the counter-jihadists are peddling. A study published by UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center found that guests with extreme anti-Muslim views made up 11 percent of all guests on prominent conservative talk radio during a period they studied in 2010. Two prominent counter-jihadists appeared on Fox News 15 times between September 2015 and February 2016, according to a count by Media Matters. Prominent televangelists spread the anti-Islam gospel to yet another group of reliable conservatives. Pat Robertson, the host of the widely broadcast 700 Club, once said on air that “Islam is a political system that is bent on world domination.”
All of this is supplemented by a vast grassroots network, centering on a group called ACT for America. Billing itself as the “the NRA of National Security,” it claims to have a membership of 500,000 nationwide, clustered in 1,000 chapters around the country.
Its president, Brigitte Gabriel, is the author of one of those mid-2000s counter-jihadist bestsellers (Because They Hate). A Lebanese Christian immigrant who calls herself “one of the leading terrorism experts in the world,” Gabriel has no formal background in terrorism, either through working in government or academia. According to her book, the highest level of education she received was a one-year course in business administration at a YWCA. Her claim to authority stems, allegedly, from experiences of persecution at the hands of Muslims during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s — a historically dubious story that Lebanese-American journalist Michael Young once labeled a “con act.”
In a speech in May 2016 at the Oasis Church in Middletown, Ohio, Gabriel delivered an accessible and entertaining speech on the counter-jihadist view of Islam. In her telling, the history of Islam is a history of bloodshed. Between Islam’s founding in the seventh century and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, she says, “Islam was responsible for 270 million people across the globe — killed by the sword.”
This violence was not accidental, Gabriel told the rapt crowd. It was the core of Islam itself.
Gabriel believes that for 12 years, Mohammed attempted to peacefully proselytize — and failed, miserably. Only when he turned to violence, to conversion at the point of the sword, did he begin to win success.
“Islam went from being strictly a spiritual movement, after 12 years, to becoming a political movement cloaked in religion,” she says. “Jihad is mentioned in the Quran 40 times — 36 times out of 40 as a holy war against the infidels, to either kill them or subjugate them.”
These are all historically inaccurate claims. Haroon Moghul, a fellow at the New America Foundation, writes that they “play loose and fast with very different eras, places and peoples,” in order to put together a narrative of a uniformly aggressive Islam. Yet Gabriel’s group has been profoundly influential.
Her activists have worked tirelessly to pass legislation, based on a template constructed by Gaffney and CSP in-house counsel David Yerushalmi, that would ban state courts from considering sharia a valid source of law. By 2016, they had succeeded in nine states: Alabama, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arizona, South Dakota, Arizona, and Tennessee.
“No court, administrative agency, or other governmental agency may enforce any provisions of any religious code,” the South Dakota version reads, neutral language obscuring the clear intent.
More alarmingly, the ideas pushed by Gabriel and CSP have been embraced by the most important members of the Trump White House.
“Most people in the Middle East, or at least 50 percent, believe in being sharia-compliant,” Bannon said on the Breitbart Daily News radio show in 2015. “Sharia-compliant” is an innocuous phrase commonly used by Muslims to denote that something is in line with Islamic law: For instance, you can find sharia-compliant home mortgage companies in the US that cater primarily (but not exclusively) to Muslims, because Islamic law forbids Muslims from collecting or paying interest on loans.
The Team B II report’s authors sees things like sharia-compliant financial institutions as an insidious threat to the US Constitution (they never really explain how a home mortgage company that doesn’t charge interest threatens the Constitution).
But the Team B II report also frequently uses the term “sharia-compliant” to describe not institutions or practices, but people: specifically, Muslims with dangerous, anti-American beliefs, anti-constitutional beliefs. And this is exactly the way Bannon is using the term. “If you're sharia-compliant or want to impose sharia law, the United States is the wrong place for you,” Bannon proclaimed.
It’s not just Bannon.
In his 2016 book The Field of Fight, Trump’s new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, wrote that Islamic scholars are attempting to trick the West to obscure the true nature of sharia.
“These so-called Islamic scholars keep their message so complicated so as to create chaos, to confuse in order to control,” Flynn writes. “Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mussolini were more transparent. Sharia is a violent law that is buried in barbaric convictions.”
Trump’s new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said more or less the same thing — in an official Senate press release. “Once again we face a totalitarian threat to the free world. This time it’s from ideological and apocalyptic Islam,” Sessions said.
“Theologically-based sharia law,” Sessions argued, “fundamentally conflicts with our magnificent constitutional order that separates church and state, and that considers free debate and dissent the way to a better world.”
That these individuals all espouse the same weirdly specific interpretation of sharia is not a coincidence. Each one of them is deeply connected to the counter-jihadist world.
Bannon hosted counter-jihadists on his Breitbart radio show 41 times, according to a count by Mother Jones’s Josh Harkinson. Flynn is an adviser to the board of Gabriel’s ACT for America, and local ACT chapters organized many of the stops on the speaking tour for Flynn’s book. In 2015, Sessions received CSP’s Keeper of the Flame award, in honor of “his leadership on issues of great importance to the national security.”
And it goes even deeper than just Trump’s cabinet. Walid Phares, a fringe Lebanese Christian academic who served as Trump’s Middle East policy adviser during the campaign, once said, “It is absolutely constitutional and moral that citizens reject Sharia as a legal system that takes away their rights.”
Sebastian and Katharine Gorka, a married couple who are staples of the counter-jihadist movement, have been given high-level positions on Trump’s staff: Sebastian is now his deputy assistant in the White House, and Katharine was on Trump’s Department of Homeland Security transition team.
Trump himself, at times, has sounded a lot like a counter-jihadist.
“Sharia authorizes such atrocities as murder of non-believers who won’t convert, beheadings, and more unthinkable acts that pose great harm to American — especially women,” Trump said, reading off a prepared statement during a December 2015 televised rally defending his proposal for a Muslim ban. “These are people who believe only in jihad. They don’t want our system.”
Several months prior to the rally, Trump had met with staffers at CSP for an hour-long briefing. The subject was the threat from sharia.
Counter-jihadists see leading American Muslims as part of the problem
The fact that most Muslims are not killers is, for the counter-jihadists, a most inconvenient fact. Over time, counter-jihadists have put less emphasis on the threat from overtly violent groups, like al-Qaeda and ISIS, and focused instead on a more insidious threat: the “stealth” or “civilization jihad.”
The foremost theorist of civilization jihad is a writer named Robert Spencer. “He’s author of so many books, and one of the top two or three experts in the world on this great war we’re fighting against fundamental Islam,” Bannon said, when hosting Spencer on Breitbart Daily News on August 9, 2016. “Trump is listening to people like you,” he told Spencer later in the interview.
Spencer, like Gabriel and Gaffney, has no formal training in Quranic scholarship. He received an MA in 1986 in religious studies from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and wrote his master’s thesis on Catholic history.
He’s run the blog Jihad Watch, a near-obsessive tracker of Islamist activity, since 2003. He is also the author of 16 books, with titles like The Complete Infidels' Guide to the Koran. Many of his books have been published by Regnery, the conservative publishing giant that also put out both Trump’s and Mitt Romney’s most recent books. Two of Spencer’s tomes made the New York Times best-seller list; there’s a decent chance you’ve seen him on Fox News in the wake of a terrorist attack.
In person, Spencer is short and portly, with a neatly trimmed black beard. He’s exceptionally confrontational, constantly trumpeting his willingness to debate all comers on Twitter and on Jihad Watch. When I contacted him for this story, his reply attacked the media — like most counter-jihadists, he sees journalists as some of jihad’s most powerful enablers.
“There you go again, Zack,” he wrote in response to one of my questions. “I know you’re a reporter, and a reporter for Vox, so I know where you stand.”
Spencer’s 2008 book, Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam Is Subverting America Without Guns or Bombs, developed one of the most important ideas of the counter-jihad. Its arguments were cited repeatedly and amplified in the Team B II report and also appear, in a simplified form, in speeches delivered by people like Gabriel in towns around the country. Spencer also regularly gives “counterterrorism” seminars based on these arguments to law enforcement agencies.
The central idea is that terrorists aren’t America’s real Muslim problem.
“Distracted by foreign wars and the prospect of domestic terror attacks, Americans pay little heed to the true agents of intolerance in their midst,” Spencer writes. “The stealth jihad advances largely unopposed because it is largely unrecognized.”
The “agents of intolerance” at the heart of this stealth jihad, Spencer explains, are the Muslim Brotherhood.
It’s a group you’re probably at least passingly familiar with. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood is one of the oldest and most influential Islamist groups in history. The group’s goal has long been the toppling of the Egyptian government and its replacement with a Sunni theocracy.
Its tactics have varied over time, from promoting grassroots social change to fielding candidates for parliament, and some individuals and groups associated with the Brotherhood in the past have advocated violent revolution. The Brotherhood even managed to gain control over the Egyptian government briefly, when Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi won in the country’s first democratic election following the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
Today, the group’s influence is relatively limited — Egypt’s military dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew Morsi in 2013 and since then has viciously suppressed Brotherhood activity. According to Human Rights Watch, he has killed more than 1,000 individuals linked to the Brotherhood and arrested many, many more.
In Spencer’s telling, though, the Brotherhood is not defined by its founding chapter in Egypt, or even its various open branches and offshoots (like the Palestinian militant group Hamas or the moderate Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia). The hidden history of the 20th century, according to Spencer, is a history of the Brotherhood’s stealth penetration of the West.
“Of course the MB still has the resources to act in the US and Europe,” Spencer tells me. “Its organizations here were well-established and handsomely funded before Sisi came along.”
In Stealth Jihad, Spencer rests this claim on a 1991 memo, written by a Muslim Brother named Mohamed Akram. The memo outlines a plan to establish a “global Islamic state,” starting in the United States. This begins, according to Akram, through a “shift from the collision mentality to the absorption mentality” — to move away from open conflict with Western authorities to suborning them from within.
This might seem like a pathetically impossible task, given the minuscule number of Muslim Brothers in the US. But — and this is the absolutely critical part — Akram thinks the Brotherhood has powerful allies who might successfully and quietly mainstream its radical agenda. In the memo, he writes out “a list of our organizations and the organizations of our friends.”
It reads like a who’s who of Muslim civic organizations in the United States, including the Islamic Society of North America (the continent’s largest Muslim civic group) and the Muslim Students’ Association (the organization that represents Muslim students on virtually every college campus in the United States). This one memo, for Spencer and Gaffney, is solid proof that these organizations are Brotherhood fronts.
“The Brotherhood, and its present-day allies and friends, [are] really working to forward the ‘grand jihad,’” Spencer writes. “When we scratch the ‘moderate’ surface of groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), we find links to terrorist organizations and exhortations to Islamic supremacism.”
The Team B II report, two years later, put the point even more clearly.
“The majority of Islamic organizations in America are affiliates of or associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in some way,” its authors explain. “Any organization that does not embrace sharia and the MB line has not been able to gain broad recognition as a Muslim-American force.”
The evidentiary basis for this claim is extremely thin. For one thing, scholars of the Brotherhood have found no evidence that Akram’s memo was an accurate representation of the Brotherhood’s reach.
“Nobody has ever produced any evidence that the document was more than something produced by the daydream of one enthusiast,” Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor who studies the Brotherhood, told Religion Dispatches’ Sarah Posner in 2011. “Nothing in anything that I have heard has ever struck me as similar in tone or content to the ‘master plan.’”
Beyond that, the organizations themselves flatly deny being agents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, as Spencer and his ilk would say, this could just be taqiyya. Except that the groups don’t just deny these affiliations — they openly advocate policies and interpretations of Islam that directly contradict this supposed grand Muslim Brotherhood plot against American values.
That does not stop Spencer, Team B II, and the rest of the counter-jihadists from citing Akram’s memo as gospel. Gaffney still tells audiences to download it (it’s available for free on CSP’s site).
The idea that the Brotherhood dominates Muslim American life serves a critical bridging point in counter-jihadist ideology. It is the only possible explanation for why, despite sharia’s supposed mandate to violence and domination, Muslim Americans are not all that violent. It’s not that they don’t believe in “Islamic supremacism” (a favored counter-jihadist term); it’s that they’re more strategic about it than the dummies in al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Militant groups can be bombed and killed. But stealth jihadists cannot: They wield Western commitments to free speech and political tolerance as a shield, allowing them to build up Muslim strength in the West without meaningful opposition.
Counter-jihadists latch onto any evidence of links between Muslim civic society and the Muslim Brotherhood to buttress this theory, wrenching quotes from Muslim leaders out of context and casting fringe figures as leading Muslim authorities.
Take their strongest and most commonly cited piece of evidence: a 2007 Justice Department case against the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity in the Dallas area that was diverting some of its donations to Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organization.
This is the most significant and largest case of a terror-funding operation using an American Muslim civic group as a front. The Akram memo was uncovered during the HLF investigation.
But in addition to the five leaders of the HLF who were actually convicted in the case, more than 246 individuals and Muslim groups, including ISNA and CAIR, were named as “unindicted co-conspirators” in the indictment — meaning the prosecutors believed they were linked to HLF’s scheme but couldn’t prove it.
They couldn’t prove it because they had no real evidence for this claim. ISNA and CAIR later filed a suit alleging that the prosecutors had unjustifiably damaged their reputation by mentioning them in the indictment. Their evidence was that counter-jihadists were using it to smear them, and the court agreed.
“There is no real dispute that CAIR suffered injury to its reputational interest by being listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in this terrorism case. Press accounts and blog entries have reported, based on this case, that CAIR is a criminal organization that supports terrorism,” the presiding judge ruled. “The government has not argued or established any legitimate government interest that warrants publicly identifying CAIR and 245 other individuals and entities as unindicted co-conspirators.”
But, as with the Akram memo, the counter-jihadists have not stopped using the HLF case as proof that America’s largest Muslim organizations are part of a stealth jihad. Multiple Republican members of Congress have parroted these accusations, most notably when they accused Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Sen. Ted Cruz, a frequent speaker at CSP events, has repeatedly pushed legislation labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group — a key recommendation in both Spencer’s book and the Team B II report.
Now a faction in the Trump administration, reportedly led by Flynn, is pushing to do the same thing by executive fiat — to add the Muslim Brotherhood to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The State Department reportedly opposes this move as illegal. A new CIA memo, reported by Politico, warns that it would boost ISIS and al-Qaeda recruiting. Virtually every expert on the Muslim Brotherhood thinks it would be unworkable and unwise.
Despite all this, the New York Times reports that the move has broad support in the White House. This should be no surprise: Both Attorney General Sessions and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, while in Congress, co-sponsored Cruz’s bill.
“There are organizations and networks here in the United States tied to radical Islam in deep and fundamental ways,” Pompeo told Gaffney in a February 2015 interview on the latter’s radio program. “They’re not just in places like Libya and Syria and Iraq, but in places like Coldwater, Kansas, and small towns all throughout America.”
Bannon has long been warning of the threat from the Muslim Brotherhood and stealth jihad; in 2007, he wrote a documentary script proposal specifically calling CAIR and ISNA "cultural jihadists" secretly working to build “an Islamic Republic in the United States.” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, in a 2016 interview with Bannon, warned of “an explanatory memorandum” uncovered in the Holy Land Foundation trial telling Muslims “to infiltrate, to multiply, to gain positions of power, and to commit what they call ‘civilization jihad.’”
Officially labeling the Brotherhood a terrorist group, an odd step given that the Brotherhood has not been linked to a terrorist attack in decades, takes on much darker tones when viewed through a counter-jihadist light. Remember, counter-jihadists think the majority of Muslim American groups in the United States are Brotherhood fronts. It’s illegal for any American to provide assistance to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
This, then, could set the stage for a massive federal inquisition into America’s major Muslim organizations based on counter-jihadist conspiracy theories. The text of the Cruz-Sessions-Pompeo bill refers to CAIR and ISNA as “United States-Muslim Brotherhood affiliates,” citing the Holy Land case. Gaffney told Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake that "CAIR is one of the organizations [prosecutors] would have to look at” if the Brotherhood were designated a terrorist group.
Spencer told me that the solution to the stealth jihad was to “enforce existing laws regarding sedition and subversion,” adding that “Muslim organizations in the West should be called upon to back up their pro-forma condemnations of al-Qaeda and ISIS with transparent, inspectable, honest programs teaching young Muslims why they should reject the understanding of Islam offered by jihad terror groups.”
Investigations into, and perhaps prosecutions of, Muslim civic organizations. “Inspectable” programs ensuring that Muslim organizations toe a religious line that counter-jihadists find acceptable. That’s what the counter-jihadists really want from Trump.
Europe will soon be “Eurabia” — a fate America might share
In July of last year, I went to Cleveland to report on the Republican National Convention. It was a weird event by any metric, but the high point of strangeness had to be the evening I spent at a party for queer counter-jihadists.
The event, organized by Breitbart’s gay firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos, was called “Wake Up!” — as in, “wake up” to the threat of jihadism. Held in a dark ballroom adorned with pictures of mostly naked, extremely young-looking men posing in red “Make America Great Again” hats, the party attracted a fairly infamous crowd.
I bumped into Pamela Geller, who co-founded (alongside Spencer) a counter-jihadist group called Stop the Islamization of America, since renamed the American Freedom Defense Initiative, wearing a rainbow sequin shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Love Will Win.” Geller is a regular on Fox News and conservative talk radio; she’s one of the most widely known counter-jihadists due to her assuming a leadership role in the fight against the “ground zero mosque” in 2010. She also has a tendency to embrace the most outlandish of conspiracy theories, once publishing a piece on her website suggesting that Barack Obama is the secret love child of Malcolm X.
When I ran into her, she was warning a partygoer of the imminent threat from Syrian refugees.
“ISIS said they were going to send a jihad army into Europe via migration in 2015. Then two months later, the migration started,” Geller said. The implication — that the refugee crisis was an ISIS plot — wasn’t especially subtle.
The ostensibly perilous state of Europe was something of a motif at the party. The featured speaker was Geert Wilders, the virulently anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant leader of the Netherlands’ far-right Party for Freedom (PVV). Wilders, an extremely tall man with slicked-back, Trumpesque hair, gave a fiery speech denouncing the influence of Islam in his homeland.
“There is only one Islam, and that Islam has no place in a free society,” Wilders told the crowd. “We should de-Islamize our societies. It’s a matter of our existence.”
One could not have hoped for a better summary of the counter-jihadist view of Europe. Proponents see the continent as a dark twin of America, a “there but for the grace of God” dystopia the Islamists are on the verge of conquering.
The key culprit, in their minds, is immigration. Prior to World War II, the Muslim population in Europe was negligible. After the war, a need to rebuild the continent led Europe to bring in a lot of people from the nearby Middle East and North Africa as guest workers. Many of these guest workers stayed, and eventually brought over their families. These people formed Muslim communities, which continue to be a draw for new Muslim immigrants today, at the same time that birthrates among white Europeans were slowing down.
The result was a rapidly growing Muslim minority in Western Europe. In 1950, 2 percent of Europeans were Muslim. That figure was 4 percent by 1990, and 6 percent by 2010.
In 2005, a Cairo-born woman named Gisèle Littman published a book warning of the dangers of this demographic shift, titled Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis. Littman, who publishes under the name Bat Ye’or (Hebrew for “daughter of the Nile”), dropped out of a master’s program at the University of Geneva in the 1960s. Nevertheless, she spent much of her life publishing “academic” tomes on Islam and Europe, arguing that the history of Islam is an unbroken history of theologically driven conquest.
In Eurabia, Ye’or posited that Muslim immigration to Europe was not the benign economic migration it seemed. It was, instead, a dark plot — a plan, dating back to 1973, “superimposed on Europe by powerful governmental lobbies.” The goal was to Islamize Europe, to reduce European whites to “dhimmitude” — a term she uses for second-class citizenship granted to non-Muslims in an Islamic society.
Eurabia has gotten scant mention in the American press; mainstream historians have scorned it. Yet the book’s thesis has risen to the level of dogma among American counter-jihadists; Geller has called Ye’or “the world's leading scholar and historian on Islamic expansionism in Europe, the Middle East and the West.”
In the pages of Jihad Watch and CSP publications, the notion that Muslim immigrants are imposing their rule on a hapless and clueless European majority is simply common sense. Every crime or terrorist attack committed by a Muslim, every law granting religious accommodations to Muslims, is cast as proof of the coming of Eurabia.
At the 2015 Values Voter Summit, the big annual gathering for right-wing evangelicals, Bannon sat down with ACT’s Gabriel to talk about the European refugee crisis. He referred to it as a Muslim “invasion,” and asked Gabriel if that was an overstatement.
“It is not,” she replied. “Europe will no longer be Europe by 2050. Europe has already become Eurabia. Europe is Eurabia right now.”
For this reason, immigration occupies a central role in the counter-jihadist imagination. If Muslim immigration turned Europe into a terror-ridden nightmare on the brink of sharia rule, then the first priority in the United States needs to be making sure the same thing can’t happen here. The Muslim Brotherhood is most easily defeated when you deny it foot soldiers.
One of the key recommendations of CSP’s Team B II report is that “immigration of those who adhere to sharia must be precluded.” More recently, CSP and ACT for America have been out front in opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees. CSP has teamed up with longtime anti-refugee activist Ann Corcoran, who got her start in 2006 opposing the resettlement of African refugees in her area of rural Maryland. A CSP video starring her has racked up nearly 3 million views on YouTube.
“This process of Muslim colonization is called the hijra,” Corcoran says in the video, using the Arabic word for migration. “Mohammed told his followers to migrate and spread Islam, in order to dominate all the lands of the world ... and that’s exactly what they’re doing now.”
The “Muslim ban” and the counter-jihad
When Trump initially announced his plan for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” way back in December 2015, his campaign statement cited a poll conducted by CSP as the key piece of justification.
“A poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing ‘25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad,’” the statement read. “51% of those polled, ‘agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to sharia.’”
This poll was, unsurprisingly, shot full of methodological problems. It was an online opt-in poll, meaning that it was not a random sample of American Muslims, and several questions were written in such a way that the answers would end up sounding extremist no matter what.
More interestingly, though, is the person who conducted the poll on CSP’s behalf. It was none other than Kellyanne Conway, who would go on to become Trump’s campaign manager and chief press surrogate. According to Mother Jones’s Pema Levy, who first reported the link, Conway’s firm had a relationship with CSP that dated back to 1998.
"It's very alarming to me that such a high number of individuals, Muslims living in the US, would say, 'Well, we can have a choice' [to follow sharia]," Conway said during a June 2015 appearance on a CSP podcast. “The Muslims living in the US themselves — 27 percent of them, anyway — say that this is what the purpose of jihad is, to either punish nonbelievers (16 percent) or, the other 11 percent, to undermine non-Muslim states."
This is the way in which the “Muslim ban” makes sense. Not as something Trump dreamed up by accident, but as a direct product of the counter-jihad’s influence on the president of the United States. You can even see the counter-jihadist influence in the text of the executive order itself.
“In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles,” the order reads. “The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.”
When the Trump administration talked about the Muslim ban to press, they warned that unfettered Muslim entry into the country would bring about a constant drumbeat of low-level terrorism — a warning that sounded a lot like some counter-jihadists’ descriptions of contemporary Europe.
“We don't want a situation where 20, 30 years from now, it's just like a given thing that on a fairly regular basis that there's domestic terror strikes, that stores are shut up or that airports have explosive devices planted or people are mowed down in the street by cars and automobiles and things of that nature,” an unnamed senior administration official told the Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson. “These are the realities that we're living in today.”
How counter-jihadists want to change America — if Trump will let them
There is a counter-jihadist master plan.
In 2015, CSP issued a follow-up report to the Team B II report. Titled “The Secure Freedom Strategy,” and authored by “the Tiger Team,” it fleshed out a broad slate of specific policy actions that could be taken to act on Team B’s diagnosis of the problem. Something like Trump’s ban on refugees entering the country is in there, as is the Flynn-Sessions-Pompeo plan for listing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Those aren’t the only two examples. The report spends a great deal of time lambasting the Obama administration for failing to openly name Islamism as our enemy.
“The Obama administration’s increasingly institutionalized secularist — if not actively pro-Islamic — policies have largely prevented the U.S. government from engaging in strategic information operations aimed at exposing and undermining the supremacist doctrine of shariah and the terrorism it commands,” its authors write. “Public clarity about that threat has also been compromised by the distortion of intelligence analysis and terminology used to describe Islam, jihad, and shariah.”
This has obvious resonances with the Republican attacks on Obama for