Inside the wild conspiracy theory that Obama is protecting 22 secret ISIS compounds
Mic's Other Facebook series looks at how the fake news you probably never see goes viral: the CEOs who pretend it's not an issue, the influencers who share it and the real-life consequences of a news cycle filled with misinformation. Today's entry: a pernicious myth about President Barack Obama protecting U.S. terrorist camps.
What if I told you that right now, there were almost two dozen terrorist training camps spread out across America where radical Islamic fighters were beefing up for a nationwide attack on President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration?
And what if I told you the FBI knows about the camps? They're ready to crush them with their supersonic death jets, but can't do so because President Obama instructed them to "monitor" the situation like a bunch of helpless teenage babysitters?
Well, here's some news you might have caught on Facebook. It comes to us via sites like Conservative Daily Post, Conservative101, TruthFeed and JewsNews (yes, really) over the past three weeks.
It looks like this:
Islamic zones? A botched FBI coverup? Twenty-two or 35 or hundreds or millions of terrorist compounds?
You guessed it: This isn't even remotely true. It's time to...
Get to know your viral Facebook hoax: Islamic compounds edition
Let's take a look at this viral story. This one is a giant stack of classic Trumpian right-wing fears, piling on anti-Muslim bigotry, a general fear of immigrants and a distrust of "weak," ''foreign" President Barack Obama. It's been resurfacing on Facebook in several forms since at least 2014 — and Trump himself pledged to "look into" the compounds in 2015.
• "FBI: 22 Confirmed Islamic Compounds Have Been Found, Obama Promises to "Monitor" Them Closely" (Conservative Daily Post)
Who's spreading it
Bill O'Reilly, mostly, thanks to a 2015 clip called "Exposing Islamic Extremists" that still makes its way around Facebook with headlines like "Bill O'Reilly Exposes Terrorist Training Camps Operating Inside the U.S" (TruthFeed, Nov. 20).
The hoax was also recently shared by right-wing news channels like World Net Daily, Western Journalism, Ending the Fed and Conservative Daily Post, Judge Napolitano of Fox News, leading American Islamophobe Pamela Geller and former congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
Just how big is it?
The iteration of this story on Conservative Daily Review has been shared more than 6,300 times and attracted more than 1,500 comments in about 36 hours.
Conservative101's version from Nov. 28 — "Terrorist Camps Are Now in Locations Across America, It's Over [Details]" — has 8,259 shares and at least 4,100 comments and 13,000 reactions.
TruthFeed's Bill O'Reilly segment has 2,300 shares.
(For comparison, a thoroughly reported article about the ravages of ISIS in Iraq posted to the New York Times' main Facebook page earlier this month received just 23 shares.)
The money quote
"The sad reality is that ... Barack Hussein Obama continues to allow hundreds of thousands of Muslims into this country while letting Islam spread wherever it chooses. With his reckless policies, federal authorities are now confirming reports that there are more than two dozen confirmed Islamic compounds in the United States that are planning an attack on inauguration day."
An actual Facebook comment on the story
"The government is taking our land and giving it to the Muslims to build these camps to train other Muslims to kill us. They are very well heavily armed by Obama and Hillary funded by George Soros."
Some choice artwork
This map, which is floating around in several formats, shows the supposed network of Islamic compounds, several of them just outside major United States cities. These unhidden terrorist training camps are allegedly spread across the country like Shoney's franchises:
And, of course, the Facebook posts are hair-raising:
Is any of it real?
Not at all. Philip Bump at the Washington Post wrote an impressive debunking of the story in 2015, after then-candidate Donald Trump was asked about the Islamic compounds at a campaign event in New Hampshire. It stretches all the way back to a 2005 National White Collar Crime Center report about an extremist group Jamaat al-Fuqra in the '80s and '90s, out of which sprouted this perennial conspiracy theory.
An appendix to the report listed the 22 American locations that had been linked to the group, and from this appendix, a right-wing group called the Christian Action Network produced a feature-length documentary that purported to show terrorist training activities taking place at the sites. (The film, Homegrown Jihad, is available to purchase on DVD, if you're looking for a Christmas present for someone you hate.)
OK, still with me? Despite the spooky documentary about the terrorists next door, nothing really ever came of the report, which aimed to connect white-collar crimes to terrorist activity from 20 to 30 years ago.
Still, right-leaning news sites have been warning of imminent attacks from these 22 cells for at least five years now. Craig Dumont, a deputy sheriff whose jurisdiction includes one of the sites, has rebutted the fear-mongering. "We don't see it. ... We just don't find any of that to be valid. ... There are no active threats that we are aware of at this time," he told a radio station in 2015.
Why it's so popular — and how anti-Muslim smear tactics endanger American lives
The hoax speaks to several running anxieties from the Obama years. It's like an Alex Jones Fevered-Conspiracy-Swamp Megatron built upon eight years of hokum: that our president is a Muslim; that our president sympathizes with terrorists; that our country is dotted with Muslim "no-go zones"; that our porous immigration system is letting in strong terrorist men by the hundreds of thousands.
If you were fed this slop for a decade, you'd have no trouble believing that an NFL of terrorist groups stretches from Washington to Florida, or that an unknown but very large group of Muslims will pull off a terrorist attack in the indefinite future.
It's a baseless smear that endangers the millions of Muslims who live in America. It stokes the racism and xenophobia of its readers. And it's going wild on Facebook, the No. 1 social network in America.