Sheriff John Carter of Wayne County, Georgia, received a hot tip in February last year that he remembers well.
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The caller said he had reason to believe the Muslims of America, a mysterious Islamic commune with cult-like devotion to a radical Pakistani sheikh, was building underground bunkers on its land near the tiny town of Jesup.
He immediately paid a visit to the reclusive Muslim group's compound, where Mecca Circle turns off of Oreo Road several miles north town. About 38 people live in the commune, where women wear burqas and the men don the skullcap common among Sufi Muslims.
"We haven't had a lot of crime out there. They have not been unfriendly or rude in any way. They do want their privacy. It is a concern. We're monitoring them, and I believe they're monitored federally, although I don't know that for sure because they're not going to tell you," Carter told WND. "But most of the concerns that bring us out there have come from outside the county."
The sheriff has a file in his office about an inch thick titled "Mecca Circle," filled with articles and CDs about the clannish Muslim enclave that keeps an extremely low profile in Wayne County.
And what about the report about those "bunkers?"
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"I personally went up there, February a year ago, because this person was saying they were putting in bunkers," he said.
He inquired of the leader, a man named Kareem, who led him to a site where the ground had been disturbed.
"They were replacing a septic tank," Carter said.
Most police calls to the 22 MOA compounds nationwide have resulted in similar "false alarms," as residents are understandably upset when they find out they have a possible jihadist training camp operating in their county, or even their state or region.
There have been a few crimes committed by MOA members in Wayne County, Carter said, but nothing approaching an act of terrorism.
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"The only thing I can recall, and I was chief deputy for 16 years before I became sheriff, was two of them did an armed robbery at a liquor store some years ago. We caught them and they went to prison," Carter said. "There's eight trailers out there on Mecca Circle, one vacant lot, a frame house and a mosque facing the east. I haven't seen much more than that."
The remote compound outside of Jesup is the smaller of two MOA encampments in Georgia whose members swear allegiance to Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani, the Pakistani cleric and spiritual leader of Jamaat al-Fuqra. The group's U.S. headquarters, Muslims of America, is in Hancock County, at the foot of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, at a place called Islamberg.
At another compound in Red House, Virginia, the local sheriff's office says they have about 20 trailer homes and a mosque. Another large compound exists in York County, S.C., with others in Michigan, Tennessee, California and other states.
The Virginia camp, in a remote area of Charlotte County, also happens to be the closest to the Lynchburg office of Christian Action Network, an activist group led by Martin Mawyer that produced the documentary film "Homegrown Jihad." The film takes a critical look at Muslims of America and Jamaat al-Fuqra. The network's film crew has visited the compound in Virginia several times.
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Maj. Donald Lacks of the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office told WND that the sheriff does not consider MOA to be a threat and he doesn't take seriously the information put out by Mawyer and others about the network of 22 "jihadist training camps."
But the phone calls and visits from concerned Americans continue to occur intermittently, mostly from folks outside Charlotte County, Lacks said. They often occur after an article has been published, such as WND's story last week about the MOA communes.
"These people live there, they have their own mosque there. They don't bother us. I've gotten a couple calls this week from West Virginia where they're reading on the Internet what a militant place we have here and that's not what it is," Lacks said. "They've been here a good while, probably 10 to 15 years. It's not a city, it's a residential area, probably 15 or 20 mobile homes there and a mosque. We go there all the time. It might be a civil paper we're serving or it might be to unlock a vehicle. Routine stuff."
'Nosy people' are the problem
Lacks said he's never been inside the mosque, but he has entered the commune.
"I have an officer that lives within a mile and a half of that community. There are no complaints. The only complaints I get are from people who read articles that are not true. We're a rural county but we have residents living near there and have no complaints," he continued. "The biggest problem we have is people driving here from outside the area being nosy, trying to find out what we have here. They give us more problems than the Muslims."
Lacks had harsh words for the Christian Action Network and its investigative work.
"They've been banned from here. They fly over and drop numerous pamphlets. One of them got charged. I believe it was for littering. They've got it in their minds that these people are militant and wanting to kill everybody," Lacks said. "Well, that's not been our experience here."
Mawyer stands by the accuracy of his 2012 book, "Twilight of America," which he co-authored with Patti Pierucci, and their documentary film, "Homegrown Jihad." He said one of the group's members was charged with littering but the charge was quickly thrown out of court.
When his film crew showed up at the compound in Red House they were greeted by hostile Muslim of Americas members. The leader of the group confronted the crew as they exited their car.
"Leave," he said. "Don't say another word. Leave, period. You understand?"
As the crew drove off, the Muslim leader struck their car window with his cane (watch film clip below).
"We toured a lot of these camps and by and large all the camps have a pretty good working relationship with the police department or the sheriff that is in the immediate area," Mawyer told WND. "Whenever we've tried to meet with any of these police agencies and present our findings they won't let us in to show any of the evidence. Maybe it's just to keep their heads buried in the sand because they certainly don’t approach this group with any degree of seriousness."
He said local sheriffs refused to take a serious look at evidence indicating that MOA has its roots in the jihadist ideology of its Pakistani leader and, according to Mawyer's research, is a ticking bomb "ready to go off."
When Mawyer approached residents living near the encampments, he says he found plenty of nervous neighbors.
"If you talk to the people that live there they will express a great deal of fear of these people for the most part, although you always have some that will tell you they have no problem with what's going on," he said. "You can imagine how much more heightened that fear would be if the local sheriff said they have a terrorist camp in their county.
"So I think that is why the sheriffs are reluctant to criticize this group."
Mawyer also believes Gilani selected the remote, rural outposts for a reason.
"They know these are small communities that don't have the resources to regularly monitor what's going on," he said.
Group not on federal radar, at least not officially
In the 1990s, the U.S. State Department listed Jamaat al-Fuqra under "other terrorist organizations" in a document called "Patterns of Global Terrorism."
That was after a raid on a Colorado camp turned up a stash of AK-47 assault rifles and pipe bombs that were primed and ready to fire. More troubling, however, was a recruitment video captured in the raid in which Sheikh Gilani boasts, "We have an advanced training course in Islamic military warfare."
At some point around 1997 Gilani and his network of camps dropped off the federal watch list.
"We did away with that section many years ago and only list the groups that are designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations," said Rhonda Shore, press secretary for the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism, in an email to WND.
The administration of President Barack Obama has preferred to deal with domestic terrorist threats in terms of more generic "violent extremism," avoiding at all cost the term "Islamic" or "terrorist" when describing incidents such as the Fort Hood shooting by Maj. Nidal Hason that claimed 13 lives. That incident, like others, have been designated as "work place violence."
The White House announced last week it will now move forward with plans to host a previously delayed summit on "violent extremism" on Feb. 18.
While the federal government treads gingerly through the weeds of Islamic radicals, it has expressed no such reticence in calling out "radical right wing" extremists such as pro-life people and disgruntled veterans, citing them in a 2009 report as potential terrorists. This trend has its roots in the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, during the Clinton administration in 1993, and the FBI's fatal shooting a year earlier of Randy Weaver's wife, son and dog at Ruby Ridge under President George H.W. Bush.
The White House later pulled the 2009 report following a strong backlash from conservatives in Congress.
Frank Spano, executive director of the Counter Terrorism Institute, said in a 2013 interview with WUSA9, a CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., that the differences in the federal government's approach to right wing extremism and Islamic extremism are stark.
"It's almost to the point now where we buy their story upfront: 'Oh, we're just a group of individuals, like-minded, who choose to live together and defend ourselves,'" Spano said. "Well, that was the same case with the Branch Davidians at Waco."
Spano said that outlook is "dangerous."
"That's the terrorist next door," he said. "That's where the U.S. really needs to reconsider how we address these organizations."
A known 'jihadist' organization
Because Jamaat al-Fuqra and Muslims of America are not on the State Department's foreign terrorist list, state and local law enforcement have less freedom to monitor them, said Clare Lopez, vice president of research and analysis for the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.
"I don't know if Jamaat al-Fuqra has ties to al-Qaida, but they are known to be a jihadist organization," Lopez said. "They're definitely jihadist in their ideology, and what's concerning is they are in the U.S."
Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was investigating Jamaat al-Fuqra in 2002 and was on his way to interview Gilani in Pakistan when he was kidnapped and beheaded.
"And the one who did the beheading was Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (the al-Qaida operative considered the architect of the 9/11 attacks)," Lopez said. "A lot of these groups are not formally connected. But they are jihadist and any group with a jihadi ideology is linked by Islam. Sometimes they do cooperate across organizational structures."
Iran helps fund Hamas, for instance, even though Iran is Shiite and Hamas is Sunni Muslim.
"It's the fundamental ideology that binds them even when the sectarian differences might divide them," Lopez said. "All of Islamic doctrine divides the world into Dar al-Islam and the Dar al-Harb, and it's the Dar al-Harb that becomes the target either through conquest or through civilizational jihad… so they do cooperate against the enemy, which is us."
Three criteria must be met for a group to get placed on the State Department's foreign terrorist list: The group must be foreign based, it must have committed violent acts, and it must be deemed a national-security threat. The State Department reviews its list every two years.
The Center for Security Policy released a study Jan. 16 that outlines a new strategy Lopez says would provide a more systematic and thorough assessment of the global jihadist threat, both at home and abroad.
Sleeper cells waiting to wake up?
A group like Jamaat al-Fuqra could be a sleeper cell that lies dormant for years, only to be activated one day by its leader, analysts such as Lopez and Spano surmise. It has not carried out any organized acts of violence for more than a decade.
"It's troubling, because we've got this network of dozens of encampments across the U.S. and of course it's not like the no-go zones in Europe because these are out in the countryside and neighbors report that they have heard gunfire inside the encampments but gun ownership in America is legal," Lopez said. "So you would need a warrant, probable cause, all these things. It's just been difficult for law enforcement."
Even if a local sheriff wanted to thoroughly investigate MOA, there is no legal basis for doing so because they operate on private property and have separated themselves from society under the premise that they are practicing their religion.
"That is pretty clever of the group," Lopez said. "Our Jan. 16 report is a national strategy to defeat the global jihad movement, recognizing it is not only a religion, because a religion is pietistic. It involves worship of a deity, maybe has a diet, rules for living, and that's completely covered by the First Amendment and if that was all Islam was then we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Islam also has its own legal system, shariah law, which Lopez said could be seen as a violation of Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution.
"So we have to stop talking about it as a religion only. It is a totalitarian political system and supremacist in nature, and as part of the belief system itself obligates Muslims to conquest," she said. "Now, happily, a big percentage of Muslims don’t want anything to do with that."
Lopez cites a 2013 Pew Research survey of the Muslim world, which includes 1.6 billion adherents. In this survey, a surprising 19 percent of U.S. Muslims did not agree that suicide bombings were never justified.
"Even if a majority of the 1.6 billion never pick up a gun or a bomb they still go to mosque and still make donations, and one-eighth of the donation goes to jihad. That's according to the law of Islam. They're supporting it, they're perpetrating it," Lopez said. "So it's not just the ones that pick up the guns and the bombs. It's every single parent that allows them to go to an Islamic school. I can understand why people don’t want to take that on. It seems pretty daunting. But if one-fifth of world's population is Muslim think of the other side, four-fifths are not Muslim. So we're going to be concerned about a backlash from the one-fifth?"
Watch the local CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C.'s report on the 22 communes operated by Muslims of America:
WND informed Lacks that several reputable researchers, media outlets and even the FBI itself, have documented the terrorist ties of Gilani's group. Comments from Gilani himself make reference to America being the "enemy" of Islam and that he was "establishing training camps" for the "Soldiers of Allah."
Lacks said he had to go answer another phone call and abruptly ended the interview with WND before he could be asked if he was aware of specific incidents, such as the 1992 raid on MOA's Beuna Vista, Colorado, compound that found a cache of assault rifles and explosives, or about the firebombing of a Hindu temple in Colorado by MOA members. The camp in Colorado was also where a recruitment video was captured in which Gilani touted the "Soldiers of Allah" and showed members engaging in military-type drills, marching with rifles, setting off explosives and assaulting fictional enemies.
One police chief not convinced group is 'peace loving'
But not all law enforcement officers are dismissive of the group and its potential as a terrorist sleeper cell within the U.S.
John W. Gaissert, the police chief of Commerce, Georgia, near the MOA camp in Franklin County, is a retired Navy commander who has spent a career in law enforcement, working directly on military and civilian counter-terrorism issues.
Gaissert was a security consultant for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and also testified in 2010 to a U.S. House Subcommittee on Intelligence. He believes it would be a mistake to dismiss Jamaat Fuqra and Muslims of America as merely pietistic Muslims trying to live in peace out in the countryside.
"Their spiritual mentor is Sheikh Gilani and his concept is to make your enemy your friend and then kill them," Gaissert said.
Gilani came to America in 1979 and got his start in a mosque in New York.
"And of course the U.S. always seems to back the wrong hound, and when the Afghans were fighting the Russians he recruited 100 men who trained in Pakistan and then fought under Osama bin Laden," Gaissert said. "In any event he is a radical clerical."
Yet, the compound on Madinah Road outside of Commerce in a remote area of north Georgia has not had any reported acts of violence.
"You could probably surmise that all these groups are probably on a federal radar screen, but there is no department of pre crime. We act on intelligence but until someone commits a crime there is not much to do, we still have a free country," Gaissert told WND. "We've had no overt acts of violence. That is not to say they are benign because if you research Jamaat Fuqra in other parts of the country we have had acts of violence. We have not had any violent acts from the group here but you have to look at the roots. We have enough information to know there are specific facts that can be stated about this particular organization."
FBI documents show the group's members have been tied to 10 murders, three firebombings and one attempted firebombing, as well as welfare fraud.
"We know al-Qaida and ISIS have called for lone-wolf attacks against law enforcement and now we've seen object lessons in Europe, and we've also seen them in Fort Hood, Texas, and in Oklahoma, and in Boston and in New York. This is not something to take lightly. The notion that it can't happen here and it can't happen to me is pretty myopic in terms of a world view. That's a fatal philosophy for police."
Mawyer said he believes the favorable treatment from local law enforcement boils down to politics.
"You can speculate about why the local law enforcement community always puts out such positive stuff about these groups, but put yourself in their position. They don’t have any legal means to do anything with these camps, and to try to face re-election every four years with the possibility that you have a terrorist training camp in your jurisdiction, it's just easier to try to say these are not terrorist camps, just peace-loving people trying to educate their own kids and do their own farming," he said. "There's a lot of political pressure on these sheriffs."
Gaissert said one thing is certain – that political correctness has seemed into law enforcement at the federal level and some of that has leaked down to the state and local levels.
"It seems that if an attack is sponsored or directed by a terrorist organization they will label it a terrorist act. But if an act or event is jihadist inspired, that is by someone who was radicalized by a teaching in a mosque or over the Internet, they will not call it an act of terrorism," he said. "But a rose by any other name is still a rose. Why would you want to cloud the issue or deny the reality of it?"
Sheriff Stevie Thomas of Franklin County, where the larger of the two Georgia camps has operated for years, near Commerce, did not return repeated phone calls from WND. Sheriff Bruce Bryant of York County, S.C., which also has a large MOA enclave, also did not return calls.
"So for any sheriff to claim that we put out false information, they will never put a finger on anything we've shown that is in anyway false because they can't. It's all very well researched," Mawyer said. "We hear this all the time, not just from sheriff's departments. Is the video false? Are Gilani's own words false?"
Mawyer points to Gilani's diatribe in the captured video from Colorado as the most damning evidence.
"He said, 'We are establishing the most advanced Islamic warfare training camps and we're in upstate New York, we're in Georgia, we're in Michigan and you can reach out to join us. And America is the enemy.'"
Mawyer said he has no message for the local sheriffs who ignore or denigrate his research.
"They have a duty to perform in their communities," he said. "I hope they do it well."
"Why Sheriff Jones (of Charlotte County) feels these are nice peaceful people, I don't know," he continued. "Our entire goal was just to say 'Look, they are here and here's what they've done in the past, and here's what they are capable of doing now.'"
What happened in Colorado in 1992 should stand as a lesson, he said.
"They had their Colorado compound raided and shut down, and if you were to read all the newspaper pieces from back prior to that raid it would sound the same way -- these are nice peaceful people -- and then they found cashes of weapons and explosives."
Little chance of congressional hearings
Mawyer said he asked one congressman, "who will remain nameless," about holding hearings on Jamaat Fuqra and Muslims of America. His response was jolting.
"How far would I get if I tried to advance hearings on Capitol Hill into a group dealing with a lot of women in its camps, most are black, and a minority religion, how far would I get?'" the congressman asked him.
"It's like three strikes and you're out. You're not going to hold a hearing on these people, because you'd be depicted as racists and Islamophobes and anti-women," Mawyer said. "All the facts are in the documentary, and the book, it speaks for itself. If people want to take the word of their sheriff's department over what this group puts out themselves, then so be it."