By Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman Email Author
The FBI has publicly declared that its counterterrorism training seminars linking "mainstream" Muslims to terrorists was a "one time only" affair that began and ended in April 2011. But two months later, the Bureau employee who delivered those controversial briefings gave a similar lecture to a gathering of dozens of law enforcement officials at an FBI-sponsored public-private partnership in New York City.
And during that June presentation, the FBI's William Gawthrop told his audience that the fight against al-Qaida is a "waste," compared to the threat presented by the ideology of Islam itself.
"At the operational level, you have groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaida. Like teeth in a shark, it is irrelevant if you take one group out," Gawthrop said during his lecture to the New York Metro Infragard at the World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan.
Since Danger Room published the contents of Gawthrop's April lecture, top Senators and representatives from Arab- and Muslim-American groups have blasted the FBI for the training documents, which compare Mohammed to a "cult leader."
This June 8 lecture is controversial in a different way. In Gawthrop's worldview, the struggle against al-Qaida is really just an afterthought in a broader war. The group that knocked down the World Trade Center and rammed a jet into the Pentagon is a mere distraction. These are the professional assessments of a representative from the nation's top domestic counterterrorism agency — a man considered so expert in understanding militant strategy that the FBI had him training agents on the subject.
"We waste a lot of analytic effort talking about the type of weapon, the timing, the tactics. All of that is irrelevant ... if you have an Islamic motivation for actions," Gawthrop said. Even taking down hostile states like Iran is futile, since "there are still internal forces that will seek to exert Islamic rule again."
The best strategy for undermining militants, Gawthrop suggested, is to go after Islam itself. To undermine the validity of key Islamic scriptures and key Muslim leaders.
"If you remember Star Wars, that ventilation shaft that goes down to into the depths of the Death Star, they shot a torpedo down there. That's a critical vulnerability," Gawthrop told his audience. Then he waved a laser pointer at his projected PowerPoint slide, calling attention to the words "Holy Texts" and "Clerics."
"We should be looking at, should be aiming at, these," Gawthrop said.
Outside counterterrorists disagree — strongly — with Gawthrop's take. "This is mind-numbingly stupid and dangerous," says Aki Peritz, a former intelligence analyst at the National Counterterrorism Center, now with the Third Way think-tank in Washington. "If we were to follow his idea to a logical extension, that means we have individuals in every single government agency, at top levels, from CIA to the Defense Department to members of Congress, that are part of this cabal to destroy Western civilization. If you truly believe that, then this is McCarthyism on steroids."
Gawthrop delivered the presentation at the New York City chapter of Infragard. Infragard is a public-private partnership between the FBI and the private sector with chapters around the country "dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the United States."
The president and CEO of New York Metro Infragard, Joseph Concannon, told Danger Room that Gawthrop spoke in front of "60, 70 people," mostly from law enforcement. Concannon says an organization affiliated with Gawthrop, the American Military University, recommended the analyst to New York Metro Infragard after vouching for his expertise.
"We actually thought Bill had a very good presentation," Concannon said. "We gained a better understanding of the constraints put on [Muslims] in cooperating with law enforcement by some of the rules and policies they have in place."
Videos of the presentation, publicly posted to YouTube, were made private immediately after Danger Room contacted the FBI and New York Metro Infragard, one of a series of partnerships between the FBI and the private sector "dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the United States." However, Wired's video team was able to recovered one of the clips before it vanished completely from public sight. While the video recovery effort progressed on Friday, the FBI amended its press release, noting that Gawthrop continued to "provid[e] training on behalf of the FBI" until "August, 2011."
At the start of his lecture, Gawthrop told his audience that he was speaking in his capacity as a private citizen, not as an FBI analyst. His lecture featured an army.mil e-mail address, not one from the FBI. Gawthrop also said that he was discussing Islam and the Prophet Mohammed "as an ideology, not as a religion," in order to stay in-bounds of the First Amendment.
Gawthrop compared that Islamic "ideology" and its adherents to a "paper with iron filings on the top," brought into contact with a "very powerful magnet," which moves the iron filings back and forth. The iron filings "for the purposes of this discussion" are Muslims.
"We are not discussing Muslims. What we are interested in is the magnetic force, the radiating force of the ideology," Gawthrop said. "That it animates these iron filings, or these people, is one thing. But we are not talking about the goodness or the badness of the iron filings. We are only interested in the force that this ideology exerts on its surroundings. That force is also exerted against you."
Of course, the idea that Gawthrop can separate a devotee's "relationship to his Diety" and his relationship to other men is laughable. The Koran, like the Old and New Testaments, has strict ethical guidelines about how people should treat one another; those ethics are considered, in all three Abrahamic faiths, to come directly from God.
In earlier forums, Gawthrop made no such distinction. Before he joined the Bureau, Gawthrop told the website WorldNetDaily that the Prophet "Muhammad's mindset is a source for terrorism" and decried Washington's "political taboo of linking Islamic violence to the religion of Islam."
Nevertheless, in June, Gawthrop instructed his audience that the contents of the Koran and the other Islamic holy texts are best understood as only "17 percent religious." The other 83 percent comprises Islamic law and other means of governing the relationship "between Islam and the non-Islamic world." And that 83 percent amounts to an "expansive doctrine with a single agenda: world imperium. Controlling the world."
This was not the only presentation Gawthrop gave in New York. Concannon introduced Gawthrop's Infragard talk by explaining that Rick Powers, "a former chief of operations for NYPD, had a meeting a short while ago, for some security directors and other personnel in the city. And it was an hour-long presentation by a gentleman by the name of Bill Gawthrop.... And the feedback that we heard from everybody ... was that it was an actually outstanding presentation, why wasn't it longer?"
In a statement issued to reporters Thursday, the FBI said very delicately that "this particular training segment" occurred "one time only, at Quantico and was quickly discontinued." That might be literally true — for the briefings that Gawthrop delivered to FBI counterterrorism agents at Quantico.
But that doesn't mean that Gawthrop's presentation was a one-off. The Infragard briefing proves Gawthrop presented his material to at least one FBI-affiliated security organization afterward. And previous Bureau training materials claimed that Islam "transforms [a] country's culture into 7th-century Arabian ways."
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Gawthrop believes that turning to the U.S. Muslim community for help in rooting out Islamic radicals is a waste of time.
"If we were going back to the 1940s, this would be like the Army and Navy asking Japanese-Americans to participate in the intelligence and operations paths trying to understand the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. That didn't happen," he told his audience in a second presentation, the video of which could not be recovered.
It's another odd message for an FBI counterterrorism analyst to send. The publicly stated position of the Bureau is that the relations with American Muslims are at the heart of the FBI's strategy to disrupt terror networks. As Bureau director Robert Mueller said in April, "every one of our 56 field offices and the leadership of those offices have had outreach to the Muslim community... We need the support of that community."
What's more, counterterrorism officials from the White House on down — like their predecessors in the Bush administration — insist that the number-one terrorist threat the U.S. faces comes from al-Qaida. Yet Gawthrop, who sees an undifferentiated Islamic menace, has no problem teaching FBI affiliates in law enforcement that not only is al-Qaida irrelevant, it's no different from Hamas and Hezbollah, groups with vastly different goals and vastly less American blood on their hands.
For those reasons, among others, outside counterterrorism experts believe Gawthrop's message is harmful to those people who are actually trying to stop militants — instead of going around lecturing about them.
"Clearly, al-Qaida and its affiliates remain the most dangerous terrorist threat facing America," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a former National Counterterrorism Center official who now studies counterterrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Combating al-Qaida and its toxic narrative — which claims the U.S. and the West are at war with Islam — must remain the primary focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Any rhetoric that potentially fuels this false narrative only serves to counteract efforts to undermine the group's appeal. Inappropriately enlarging the characterization of the threat to include all of Islam may inadvertently increase al-Qaida's ideological resonance and could facilitate recruitment of would-be terrorists."
"The single worst thing we've done since 9/11, the one thing that's harmed us the most in interrogations, is these types of stereotypes," said Matthew Alexander, the pseudonymous former senior military interrogator who helped take down the leader al-Qaida in Iraq. "It's harmed us more than anything else, because we end up skipping the first step of any interrogation, which is analysis."
"Gawthrop's talk is a total nightmare," added Jarret Brachman, who closely monitors online Islamist radicalization. "This kind of vitriolic snake oil is not only wrong but it serves to inflame the relations between Muslims and law enforcement, making both communities more suspicious of one another's real intentions. Gawthrop and others ironically undermine years of my own work to convince online Islamists that the kind of training being provided to the U.S. government is objective and not against Islam. Gawthrop's approach to training is indefensible and makes my job trying to simmer a bunch of online hotheads down a lot harder."
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