Are Acts of Staged Controversy an Islamist Strategic Tactic?
by Madeleine Gruen and Edward Sloan
February 27, 2009
Through careful study of terrorist incidents and investigations and study of the histories of the terrorist groups, U.S. law enforcement officers, security officials, and intelligence analysts have developed an understanding of the tactics, techniques and procedures used by terrorists preparing for and conducting attacks. Professionals can usually distinguish between a truly suspicious incident and benign behavior. However, there is a third category of non-violent activities that is more difficult to identify, which we will refer to as "acts of staged controversy."
There are some cases where witnesses describe actors' behavior as "odd" yet very overt—behavior apparently designed to attract attention. Viewed under differing prisms, the behavior could be classified as either benign or as some type of terrorist activity. Decision makers and practitioners should consider the possibility that certain incidents are staged or that they are escalated by manipulation of the media and the legal system to create controversy and to provoke a response to serve strategic purposes.
It is very difficult to prove ulterior intentions behind what we are referring to as "acts of staged controversy." Perhaps these acts are deliberately provocative. Or, it is possible these are innocent events that may be seized upon by advocacy groups for political gain. We present this hypothesis to provide an alternative way of analyzing these types of incidents.
Strategic Motivations of Islamist Groups
Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, do not necessarily intend to engage in violence (though some branches of the Muslim Brotherhood are very violent). Nevertheless, they share the same long-term goal as violent jihadist groups: to establish an Islamic society. Part of their strategy is to weaken and dismantle democratic regimes. They endeavor to "Islamize" society using a bottom up approach so that eventually their doctrines are accepted as the norm rather than considered extreme or marginal.
This article offers two cases, both involving the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which describes itself as a Muslim advocacy organization. These cases are meant to be illustrative of how acts of staged controversy may be implemented by groups with an Islamist agenda.
Many of CAIR's founding members were members of the Muslim Brotherhood and of a support network created by the Brotherhood to benefit Hamas. Some experts believe that CAIR continues to be deeply involved with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and supports their objectives., The Muslim Brotherhood is not considered a monolithic organization, and its various branches may disagree on specific tactics, but all are consistent in their commitment to its core ideological principles, including the adoption of their political version of Islam as a governing standard for all Muslims around the world.
In 1991, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a memorandum outlining its strategic goal in North America. It reads, in part:
"The [Muslim Brotherhood] must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and "sabotaging" its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and Allah's religion is made victorious over all other religions."
On November 20, 2006, six imams boarded a US Airways jet that was about to depart from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport for Phoenix, Arizona. They had attended a three-day conference of the North American Imams Federation. Three only had one-way tickets and no checked luggage. Various witnesses reported observing the group praying in an unusually loud way in the waiting area prior to boarding. One of the witnesses, a clergyman who was familiar with Islamic practices, described their behavior at the gate as "atypical." This same witness was later seated next to one of the imams on the plane and intentionally engaged him in conversation. The imam initially expressed to the witness that he was in the United States to do work related to his Ph.D. Later in the discussion, he admitted he was not doing academic work but instead intended to "represent Muslims in the United States" by generating support for Shari'a law.
Upon boarding the plane, the imams dispersed. Two sat in the front of the plane, two in the middle, and two in the rear. The flight crew and passengers observed them changing seats, and several of the men requested seat-belt extenders. Crew members thought the request was odd, as none of the imams appeared overweight. Although the extenders were provided, they were never used and were left on floor of the plane. One passenger stated that she believed that the imams deliberately acted out as a part of an attempt to intimidate airline employees. Another passenger said, "I can't explain it, but it was like they were definitely trying to raise suspicion." The flight was delayed and the imams were removed from the plane by the airport police, questioned, and released after their plane had already departed.
CAIR filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation, and a separate civil suit in federal court on behalf of the imams against US Airways and the Metropolitan Airports Commission, citing civil rights violations. CAIR also sued the "John Does" who alerted the aircrew and authorities after becoming alarmed by the imam's behavior in the terminal and on the plane. While the "John Doe" provision of a bill (designed to protect citizens who report possible terrorist-related behavior from being sued, and to protect officers acting in an official capacity to prevent terrorist attacks) was moving through Congress, CAIR persisted with its lawsuit, claiming the right to discover whether the complaints were actually made "in good faith" or if they were racially motivated.
President George W. Bush signed the "John Doe" provision into law on August 3, 2007 and CAIR dropped its claims against the "Does." There may be a residual "chilling effect," however, that would prevent concerned citizens from reporting suspicious incidents for fear of getting sued. Causing reluctance to report suspicious incidents in which Muslims are involved may be an aspect of Islamist strategy to reduce resistance to the Islamization of society.
In January 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that US Airways did not discriminate against the imams and that the airline's actions were reasonable. The civil suit is scheduled to go to trial in August, 2009.
During a football game September 19, 2005 at Giants Stadium, five Muslim men were questioned by FBI agents after they prayed near the stadium's main air intake duct located in a sensitive area. Former President George H.W. Bush attended the game and security was high. After approximately 20 minutes of questioning, FBI agents determined that the group did not pose a threat and allowed them to return to the game.
This group may have acted completely innocently. The issue, however, was not dropped by the men, and a few weeks later, on November 2, 2005, the group joined forces with the New Jersey-based American Muslim Union and the New York City chapter of CAIR for a joint press conference concerning the incident. At the conference, the men complained that they had been humiliated at Giants Stadium, and that their "main aim [in publicizing the episode] was to bring to light and educate people about what it is we're supposed to do." They also took the opportunity to promote a campaign called "Pray for Understanding," which the executive director of the New York office of CAIR described as a way to teach people about Islam. The tie-in to the "Pray for Understanding" campaign at the press conference suggests the possibility that the incident at Giants Stadium may have been staged to create a platform to promote an ulterior public relations agenda.
What Islamists Might Gain from "Acts of Staged Controversy"
The Minnesota Imams and Giants Stadium incidents are just two examples where unusual but overt behavior has been investigated, dropped (because there was no clear indication of wrongdoing), and subsequently taken up and intensified by CAIR or by other Muslim groups. Due to the involvement of Islamist advocacy groups, news stories are generated and controversy stirred.
If the objective of Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, is to establish Islam as the dominant global societal doctrine, then how would creating acts of controversy - or seizing on opportunities to create controversy - further their strategy to achieve their objective? If they intend to achieve their objective through non-violent means then it is logical to conclude that they would want Muslims to embrace their perspective and to eschew democratic principles..
For example, acts of staged controversy could be used to:
- Cause Muslims to feel disaffection for the democratic system by promoting feelings of betrayal and abandonment.
- Convince Muslim Americans that they are not accepted as Americans. Acts of staged controversy provoke a response from authorities that can foment an "us vs. them" rift between Muslims and non-Muslims.
- Incite political divides that may ultimately cause political instability.
- Influence legislators to call for laws to outlaw profiling and/or repeal existing laws such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act.
- Draw attention from foreign media in an attempt to show that the U.S. rhetoric about acceptance is hollow.
Acts of staged controversy could also be exploited by groups who seek to use violence. For example, acts of staged controversy could be used to:
- Desensitize security personnel by making activity that common sense would deem suspicious instead seem routine and not worth any special effort.
- Intimidate security personnel and citizens by threatening lawsuits; making them reluctant to report suspicious behavior.
Handling Acts of Staged Controversy
Unfortunately, hatred, bigotry, and mistrust exist in the United States, and it is the role of civil rights groups to respond appropriately when acts of hatred do occur. It is the duty of responsible officials to monitor political, religious, and social tensions so that violent acts motivated by hatred can be prevented. The long view for homeland security, however, cannot be compromised by hasty responses to ambiguous situations. It is possible that some Islamist groups may exaggerate the occurrence of anti-Islamic discrimination in order to validate the premise that "Islamophobia" is rampant. According to FBI statistics, out of a total 7,624 hate crimes reported in the United States in 2007, 115 were motivated by anti-Islamic bias. By contrast, 2,658 were motivated by bias against blacks, 749 were anti-white, 1,265 targeted people based on sexual orientation and 969 of the hate crimes reported were motivated by bias against Jews.
Law enforcement and security personnel, airline and airport managers, legislators, politicians, media, and private citizens all have roles to play to prevent the spread of extremist ideology, which could lead to radicalization and, ultimately, a possible terrorist event.
Response at the Federal, Law Enforcement and Media Levels
Politicians must acknowledge Islamist ideology is being promoted in the United States, recognize who is promoting it, and understand the subtle tactics used by the Islamist groups before they can introduce effective counter-measures against terrorism. Politicians must realize that Islamist groups are competing for hearts and minds in the United States, so commitment to democratic values cannot be taken for granted.
How does law enforcement play a role in acts of staged controversy if there is no apparent crime committed? It is unlawful to conspire and to deliberately disrupt or interfere with the legitimate activities of law enforcement and security personnel. Engaging in deliberately suspicious behavior in order to distract security and law enforcement authorities is a tactic that has been discussed on Islamist message boards. Of course, in ambiguous situations it is hard to prove the actual intent of the actors. Difficult though it may be, investigations should be conducted and cooperating witnesses sought and developed. The stakes are high, especially when the results of these incidents are considered in the aggregate and not individually.
Associations with terrorists or terrorist groups are not evidence of a crime, but are valuable data points in evaluating the true nature of an incident. If there are nefarious or questionable associations or prior activities that could shed light on possible motivations for ambiguous acts, they should be made known as much as possible. For example, one of the six imams involved in the Minnesota airport case, Omar Shahin, raised money for the Holy Land Foundation and for the Illinois-based KindHearts Foundation, which the government shut down last year for alleged support of Hamas."
Additionally, the media should be aware of the possibility that it is being used to further an Islamist agenda. Media cooperation and extensive coverage is a key element of successful acts of staged controversy. Historically, global political Islamist groups have skillfully manipulated the media as part of their effort to circulate their message. Statements made by spokespeople representing Islamist groups are often taken at face value by the media, and past involvements and associations often go unmentioned. Just as it is for law enforcement, it is important for the media to consider incidents in the aggregate.
It could be that individuals or groups unintentionally behave in a way that is deemed suspicious, and that official response may cause embarrassment. It also is true that innocent events create opportunities for groups like CAIR to influence the public's view of Islam, both politically and ideologically.
Acts of staged controversy or public relations campaigns manipulating otherwise innocent events may be an aspect of Islamist group strategy to Islamize society. Authorities dealing with such incidents should assess the behavior as an aggregate. Their responses should address the root of the problem, rather than potentially allowing such incidents to compel a response that supports the Islamist agenda.
Madeleine Gruen is a Senior Analyst for the NEFA Foundation. She is also a Senior Intelligence Analyst for Mike Stapleton Associates and is a contributor to the Counterterrorism Blog. Previously, she was an intelligence analyst for the New York Police Department's Counterterrorism Division.
Edward Sloan is a detective in the New York Police Department with 35 years of service. He is a Navy Reserve Officer and since 2001 has deployed several times to Afghanistan and the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His views are not necessarily those of the NYPD or the Navy.
 Stephen Coughlin, Analysis of Muslim Brotherhood's General Strategic Goals for North America, Statement entered as evidence in U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation, September 7, 2007.
 Zeyno Baran, The Muslim Brotherhood's U.S. Network, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol. 6, Hudson Institute, 2008.
 Douglas Farah, Ron Sandee, and Josh Lefkowitz, The Muslim Brotherhood in the United States: A Brief History, NEFA Foundation, October 26, 2007, http://www1.nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/nefaikhwan1007.pdf (last accessed February 26, 2009)
 See: "Government's Memorandum in Opposition to Council on American-Islamic Relations' Motion for Leave to File Amicus Curiae Instanter and Amicus Brief in Support of the Unindicted Co-Conspirators' First and Fifth Amendment Rights," USA v. Holy Land Foundation, 3:04cr240 (TXND September 4, 2007) in which prosecutors say "CAIR has been identified by the Government at trial as a participant in an ongoing and ultimately unlawful conspiracy to support a designated terrorist organization, a conspiracy from which CAIR never withdrew."
 "Beware of CAIR" letter from U.S. Reps. Sue Myrick, Pete Hoekstra, John Shadegg, Paul Broun and Trent Franks to other House members. January 30, 2009. It says "There are indications that this group has connections to HAMAS." And, letter from U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf to Michael Heimback, FBI Assistant Director, Counter Terrorism Division, February 2, 2009. Wolf asks about news reports that the FBI has cut off communication with CAIR "amid mounting evidence that it has links to a support network for Hamas."
 See The Muslim Brotherhood's English-language web site, http://ikhwanweb.com/index.asp.
 The Muslim Brotherhood's document outlining their strategy in North America and analysis of the document can be found on the NEFA Foundation web site: http://www.nefafoundation.org/hlfdocs.html. See Exhibit GX 4-21 (last accessed February 26, 2009).
 Minnesota Airport Police Incident Report, OCA # 06004536, November 20, 2006.
 Katherine Kersten, Ordering Imams Off Flight Was Reasonable Act, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune, December 7, 2006.
 Minnesota Airport Police Incident Report, OCA # 06004536, November 20, 2006.
 Steven Huntley, Travelers Need Shield From Lawsuit, Chicago Sun-Times, July 29, 2007.
 Ibrahim Hooper, National Communications Director for CAIR, appearance on "Tucker," MSNBC, July 29, 2007.
 The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (H.R.1)
 Audrey Hudson, Imams Drop Lawsuit Against Doe Passengers, Washington Times, August 23, 2007.
 David Hanners, Feds Refute Imams' Bias Case Against US Airways, Twin Cities Pioneer Press, February 18, 2009.
 A Place to Pray During Games, New York Times, November 23, 2005.
 Jeff Diamant and Russell Ben-Ali, Meadowlands to Add Worship Area, Newark Star Ledger, November 22, 2005.
 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, HSIA 04-0042, September 2, 2004.
 Madeleine Gruen interview with former high-ranking member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, December 8, 2008. Also see Habib's Get Rich Quick Schemes, Manchester Evening News, December 18, 2008.
Reader comments on this item
Militant Somalis in Greeley Colorado
Mar 13, 2009 14:37
You might look at the staged crisis at the Greeley Colorado meatpacking company where Islamic Somalis walked off the job in protest allegedly because break times did not correspond with their religious dictates. Thankfully they were fired, but in light of this article it does raise questions Colorado LEO ought to re-consider.
Feb 28, 2009 16:03
Coming up with the label "Staged Controversy" is very helpful on its own. Getting the term into the media lexicon will help enormously when these sort of events happen again. If you can just get the MSM to toss in one sentence like." ..but some say this is just another staged controversy" that would be a great step forward in raising awareness of the tactic.
I think the place where the "staged controversy" tactic is used most successfully is on college campuses. There's probably a dozen or more examples from just the last year or so.
Rumor Mills As Acts of Staged Controversy
Submitted by Philip Henika, Feb 28, 2009 13:04
The "rumor mill" suffices, IMO, as an act of staged controversy and the "rumor mill", as we all know, can be employed via media and government propaganda as well as terrorist groups. The false reporting by a London tabloid (Sun) of a plaque outbreak amongst AQIM in Algeria is a recent example. I have a couple of questions. If terrorist groups become more and more linked to organized crime will they become more secretive and less prone to acts of staged controversy? Do you think global leaders should make more of an effort to compete for hearts and minds based, in part, on the relevance of the research here?
Why no comment on the Danish Toons
Feb 28, 2009 04:57
The most blatant example for me was the eruption caused by the DCs only some three months after they had appeared during the month of Ramadan in Egypt and other places, and with an extra "non-Danish" image included. It took the Danish Imam time to get things rolling.