The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump and the ‘terrorist training camps’ conspiracy theory, explained

During a rally in New Hampshire, Donald Trump did not challenge an audience member who said that President Obama is Muslim and "not even an American." (Video: AP)

The first question Donald Trump took at an event Thursday night in New Hampshire was a doozy.

"We have a problem in this country: It's called Muslims," the questioner began, going on to state that President Obama was himself Muslim. "We have training camps, growing, where they want to kill us. That's my question: When can we get rid of them?"

Trump's response met with immediate backlash. He didn't correct the questioner's incorrect assertion about Obama's religion and, further, suggested that his administration was "going to look at that." Trump's campaign insisted that the "that" they'd be looking at wasn't getting rid of Muslims -- but rather, those alleged training camps.

Which is itself a weird proposition.

The idea that there are 22 (or, in some iterations, 35) terrorist training camps in the United States appears to stem largely from a 2005 report from the National White Collar Crime Center, a nonprofit organization that receives federal funding. The report, "Identifying the Links between White-Collar Crime and Terrorism," focused on a group called Jamaat Ul Fuqra and the ways in which it used white-collar crime to fund its activities.

An appendix to the report indicates a number of places where Fuqra had conducted activities or had training compounds across the country. The training camp locations from that report are indicated on the map below.

A group called the Christian Action Network visited some of the sites, producing a spookily soundtracked video of their efforts. It contains footage apparently recorded at some of the sites showing people using automatic weapons and training in hand-to-hand combat.

Other conservative sites have zeroed in on particular compounds. There's Islamberg, along the eastern New York-Pennsylvania border, usually described as the "national headquarters" of Muslims of America -- which the sites link to Fuqra -- in the United States. There's Mahmoudberg, near Sweeny, Tex., which has received a lot of attention thanks to an accidental shooting in 2002 that resulted in an FBI report on the compound. And there's Islamville, in South Carolina, home of a holy shrine. A Web site focused on Islamic terror called "Clarion Project" released footage that it claims shows weapons training in Islamberg.

It's a simple idea onto which have been layered a lot of other theories, thanks in large part to running the gauntlet of Internet publicity and amateur sleuthing. The site Conservative Papers created a map of the Fuqra camps in the United States, sprinkling in some of the reported criminal activity of the group.

That National White Collar Crime Center report has a map of other activities, but with one crucial addition: Dates.

A lot of the Fuqra's nefarious activity occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. The point of the White Collar Crime Center report, after all, was that Fuqra was involved in white-collar crime, like workers-compensation fraud. That's tough to pair with spooky music.

The FBI report following the shooting in Mahmoudberg offers a glimpse at how the government views that compound.

A group of African American Muslims moved two or three trailer homes on to a rural property located on Brazoria County Road 3 outside of Sweeny, Texas. The property consist[s] of a seven to ten acre tract in an extremely wooded area. The area is so rural it is quite common for residents to shoot firearms for target practice or hunting on private property without interference from law enforcement.

Which earned a place in the headline of an article at World Net Daily, a staunchly conservative site that embraces the more exotic conspiracy theories of the far right.

(In other contexts, of course, shooting firearms in rural areas without law enforcement intervention is considered a good thing.)

Then there's Islamberg, the national headquarters where that weapons training occurs. A local law enforcement official was interviewed about the threat on a radio program earlier this year. World Net Daily summarized the words of Sheriff Deputy Craig Dumont.

Dumont told Klein his office has been inside Islamberg on a number of occasions and that he has been “perplexed” by recent news media reports of alleged jihadist training camps.
“It’s kind of perplexing to us,” he said. “All this recent media attention in regard to potential terrorist training camps and things that are going on there. We don’t see it. We just don’t find any of that to be valid at this time. … There are no active threats that we are aware of at this time.”

Islamberg is the headquarters of Muslims of America, but it disputes any link to Fuqra. It was in the news earlier this year after police disrupted a plot by a Tennessee man to attack the community.

"Formed by a group of African American Muslims from New York City," Reuters reported in its description of the area afterward, "the community follows the teachings of Pakistani Sufi cleric Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani, who during the 1980s urged his American acolytes to leave metropolitan areas and establish rural communities centered on religious life."

"We’re living the American dream," one resident told Reuters. "It was just so peaceful here, a great place to raise your children," another said in describing why she left Brooklyn to live in the community.

So why the conspiracy theories? Because that's how conspiracy theories work. Conspiracy Web sites often point out how close to New York City Islamberg is -- even though it's really not very close at all. It's far enough away that Brooklynites see it as a refuge from the city's noise and activity. Mahmoudberg is "right down the road from the Bay City nuclear power plant," a commenter at points out. In a response to Trump's comments, a commenter at points to the 2006 arrest of Muslims near Virginia -- right near "the Virginia Muslim cemetery [where] the Chechen who bombed Boston was buried." We're through the looking glass here, people.

There's no question that there exist places in the country where there are people organizing and plotting to harm the United States. Some might be motivated by faith. Are those plots being fomented at Islamville and Islamberg? Should Trump, on his first day in office as president, send law enforcement to root out the threat?

Well, law enforcement near Islamberg, in the person of Deputy Sheriff Dumont, doesn't seem too worried. And as for Mahmoudberg? The reason it's a focus of conspiracy theories is because of an FBI report.

Meaning that it's probably safe to assume that any nefarious activity -- if any evidence of some is found -- isn't escaping the notice of the authorities.