Robert Doggart was convinced a holy war was coming. “Our small group will soon be faced with the fight of our lives,” the Christian minister and onetime Tennessee congressional candidate wrote in a 2015 Facebook post. “We will offer those lives as collateral to prove our commitment to our God.”
Doggart, then 63, believed Muslim extremists had infiltrated the United States, establishing “no-go zones," sealed-off compounds that allegedly fostered anti-western sentiment and trained their residents in guerrilla warfare. He was certain Islamberg, New York, a small community in the Catskills, was one of them — and that its residents were involved in an impending terrorist plot to poison the nearby Delaware River, which supplies New York City with most of its drinking water.
Islamberg was established in 1983 by a group of black Muslims led by a Pakistani Sufi cleric named Mubarak Ali Gilani, who urged his followers to leave behind the crime, poverty, and racism of New York City for a simple, rural life.
In 2002, the U.S. government investigated Gilani to determine whether he was involved in the kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, but the FBI said in 2007 that he “was not involved” in the incident. Fox News and other right-wing media have alleged that Gilani was setting up U.S.-based fronts for Jamaat ul-Fuqra, a Pakistani organization that the U.S. State Department deemed a terrorist group in 1999. Islamberg’s residents and leaders deny this claim. “The Muslims of America and Sheikh Gilani, we have no affiliation with Fuqra. I don’t know where they’re getting all that,” Muhammad Matthew Gardner, an Islamberg resident and spokesperson for the organization, told The Outline. “They’re not part of us and we’re not part of them.”
Islamberg is now the headquarters of The Muslims of America, Inc., an organization that oversees a dozen other rural Muslim communities like it. “He said, ‘You need to get away from the city, get away from the decadence, get away from the sinning. Raise your families in the country, in rural areas in the mountains,’” Gardner said. Islamberg is only accessible by driving up a winding mountain road, and the only marker letting you know you’ve made it to the town’s entrance is a sign that reads “Holy Islamberg.” Approximately 250 people live in the sprawling community, which is built on 70 acres of land, Gardner said. The community has coexisted without incident with the neighboring towns of Deposit, Hancock, and Tompkins since its establishment in the early ‘80s. After 9/11, however, local authorities found themselves constantly debunking rumors that Islamberg harbored terrorists and was training its residents in guerrilla warfare.
"We will be cruel to them, and we will burn down their buildings. If it gets down to the machete, we will cut them to shreds."
Fox News wrote about the town in 2007, and again in 2009, both times acknowledging that local law enforcement hadn’t had any problems with Islamberg or its residents — and then suggesting that something nefarious could be brewing just beneath the surface. In 2009, Hannity aired a clip that allegedly depicted MOA-affiliated communities training in guerrilla warfare and suggested they were associated with al Qaeda.
Local authorities have repeatedly denied the allegations made against Islamberg. In January 2015, the conservative website World Net Daily — which by that point had been running conspiracy-laded pieces on Islamberg for nine years — spoke to local sheriffs from Delaware County, who denied the slew of allegations levied against Islamberg’s residents by right-wing bloggers and pundits.
“It’s kind of perplexing to us,” Craig Dumont, deputy sheriff of Delaware County, told the website. “All this recent media attention in regard to potential terrorist training camps and things that are going on here, we just don’t see it. We don’t see it. We don’t find any of that to be valid at this time.”
But Doggart was convinced the conspiracy theories were true. He began plotting an attack of his own around February 2015, using social media to call on fellow “patriots” to join him. “Thank you for your inquiry. I will add you to the list of Patriots who might decide to do this thing,” Doggart wrote to a possible co-conspirator in a private message. “Make no mistake, though. Our lives will be on the line and there is no going back when we step over the line, no different than the original Patriots who established this great Nation.”
His plan was to burn down Islamberg’s mosque and school, and he was prepared to kill or be killed in the process. “We will be cruel to them,” Doggart said of Islamberg’s residents in an intercepted phone call, “and we will burn down their buildings. If it gets down to the machete, we will cut them to shreds.”
The plan never came to fruition. One of the “patriots” Doggart recruited to carry out the attack was an FBI informant, and Doggart was arrested in April 2015. To Islamberg residents’ dismay, he wasn’t arrested on terrorism charges — instead, he was charged with soliciting others to violate civil rights by destroying religious property. “There’s a gap in the law,” Islamberg’s attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud told the New York Daily News in February 2017. “Frankly, there’s nothing on terrorism unless it’s connected to a foreign element. You won’t see the KKK charged with domestic terror even though that’s what they do.” On June 15, 2017, Doggart was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Earlier this month, a group of 50 self-professed patriots descended on the rural Muslim community for a “rally for national security.” The demonstrators gathered in a bus depot parking lot in Deposit, one of the three small towns near Islamberg, to prepare. Most had come from out of town: one couple drove in from New Jersey the night before; another pair woke up at 3 a.m. on the day of the rally to make the seven-hour-long drive down from Maine. Joseph Glasgow, who organized the event through a Facebook page he runs called “Islamberg Friend or Foe?”, had driven in from Georgia.
Glasgow, a landscaper from Athens, Georgia, appears to be a member of the Three Percenters, a “patriot movement” that claims to fight against unconstitutional overreach by the federal government. On his personal Facebook page, he wrote that his “life’s purpose is to rid this country of Radical Islamic teachinga [sic].” In June, he announced he had been in “Facebook jail” for three days, meaning the website temporarily blocked him from posting because his posts were being reported as hate speech. In the months leading up to the rally, Glasgow regularly posted updates and announcements on his profile, typically reminding attendees they couldn’t bring guns since New York is not an open-carry state and claiming Islamberg’s residents would be armed.
“These are not innocent Muslim people. I’m not saying they’re all guilty,” Glasgow said in a Facebook live video a few weeks before the rally. “Some of them, the women and children, are forced into this lifestyle. When it comes down to it, believe me, if a woman or child has to pick up a gun and shoot one of us, they’re going to pick up a gun and shoot one of us.” In that video, Glasgow acknowledged that local police told him they had a “good working relationship” with Islamberg’s residents. “We just want to draw attention to the fact that these ‘Islamic villages,’ as they call them — terror training camps, as we call them — exist.”
Glasgow’s rally attracted members of several right-wing groups: the Proud Boys, a fraternity of “western chauvinists” led by VICE cofounder Gavin McInnes, the anti-Muslim advocacy group ACT for America, and the Oathkeepers, another “patriot movement” similar to the Three Percenters.
Several protesters claimed that Islamberg and similar communities operate under sharia law — which to them, means residents engage in “female genital mutilation, throwing gays from buildings, honor killings, and stoning women to death.” (Afaf Nasher, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Outline that sharia law is similar to Catholic or Jewish doctrine. “It’s a body of law that came out of religious principles that govern various personal affairs,” like divorce, Nasher said, and American Muslims aren’t “going to ask [the government] to implement any laws that are against United States laws on the books. People like to use ‘sharia’ and words that sound foreign to promote this idea that Islam is not compatible with the U.S. Constitution and with American principles, which is nonsense.”)
Most protesters also claimed that Islamberg was one of at least 22 no-go zones embedded across the country. The term is believed to have originated from a 1996 French government list of 751 low-income neighborhoods, called “sensitive urban zones.” In 2006, conservative blogger Daniel Pipes claimed that these neighborhoods were “places in France that the French state does not fully control.” In 2013, Pipes issued a correction. “These are not full-fledged no-go zones, but as the French nomenclature accurately indicates, ‘sensitive urban zones.’ In normal times, they are unthreatening, routine places. But they do unpredictably erupt with car burnings, attacks on representatives of the state (including police), and riots.”
Despite Pipes’ correction, far-right media, including Breitbart and InfoWars, have claimed that police in Sweden, France, and Germany are too frightened to even enter Muslim-majority neighborhoods. After the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked in January 2015, Fox News latched on to the no-go zone myth — and later was forced to issue an apology for making false claims on air, a rarity for the network. But the conspiracy persisted. When asked where they had heard about no-go zones and sharia law, most protesters cited the Clarion Project (previously called the Clarion Fund), a right-wing nonprofit whose stated mission is to “[educate] the public about the dangers of radical Islam.” (The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the Clarion Project and ACT for America anti-Muslim hate groups).
"People like to use ‘sharia’ and words that sound foreign to promote this idea that Islam is not compatible with the U.S. Constitution and with American principles, which is nonsense."
The Clarion Project, whose list of donors includes billionaire casino owner and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, is largely responsible for bringing these conspiracy theories into the mainstream. Reportedly among the members of the nonprofit’s board of directors are a former CIA official, Ronald Reagan’s former deputy defense secretary, and Walid Phares, a former Middle East advisor for Mitt Romney. Phares also previously served as an advisor to the leader of a Lebanese Christian militant group that committed atrocities against Lebanon’s Muslim and Druze populations during the country’s civil war in the 1980s.
Ryan Mauro, the organization’s “national security analyst,” appeared on Megyn Kelly’s The Kelly File in 2013 to discuss what Kelly said was Islamberg residents’ plot to “bring sharia law to New Yorkers.” Mauro played a video, which he claimed was given to him by “law enforcement,” depicting women “in military fatigues getting guerrilla training” and claimed they were Islamberg residents. Two years later, Mauro appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, which played the same grainy, unverified clip of gun-toting, hijab-wearing women.
During his short-lived presidential bid in early 2015, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal delivered a speech in which he claimed no-go zones were popping up across the country. “In the west, non-assimilationist Muslims establish enclaves and carry out as much of sharia law as they can without regard for the laws of the democratic countries which provided them a new home,” Jindal said. CNN, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and several other outlets debunked the no-go zone myth and traced its origins to conservative blogs, but the conspiracy persisted. In a 2016 op-ed for the New York Daily News, Ted Cruz claimed that no-go zones in Europe prevented law enforcement from doing their jobs and fostered terrorism. Three weeks after the presidential election, Mauro was on Fox once again, this time claiming that Islamberg and 22 other alleged no-go zones were “arming up in anticipation of Trump.”
When contacted by The Outline for comment, Mauro refused to disclose which law-enforcement body sent him the video and said he needed to “double check when [he] got it.”
“You may have also noticed that MOA has never denied its authenticity, to my knowledge,” Mauro said. In a phone call with The Outline, MOA spokesperson Muhammad Matthew Gardner said the video was not filmed in Islamberg. “I don’t know anything about those videos,” Gardner said. “When he’s quoting his ‘source,’ that information is garbage. Whatever he’s saying is happening with us is not. I’m giving you my word here.”
Protesters at the rally earlier this month cited the Clarion Project’s still unverified video, which has been making the rounds on conservative blogs for over a decade, as proof that sharia no-go zones exist in the U.S.
But none of them could specify where the other 21 no-go zones were located. “I don’t know specifically where all of them are. A lot of them are on the East Coast. There’s a few in Michigan,” Pawl Bazile, a writer for Proud Boy Magazine, said. “I want to see with my own eyes, and I want you to see with your own eyes, what’s going on in this country right now. There are people who want to harm everyday Americans. There are people who are absolutely, absolutely training for violent activities and housing violent activities, as was demonstrated in the Johnson City bust,” Bazile said.
Bazile was referring to Ramadan Abdullah, a 64-year-old man who was arrested for allegedly shoplifting ammunition in Johnson City, New York, about 40 miles away from Islamberg. After local police nabbed Abdullah for shoplifting, they discovered a cache of weapons, including four handguns, eight assault weapons, and two rifles, on Abdullah’s property. Right-wing websites quickly picked up on the story and claimed that Abdullah was headed for Islamberg, even though local law enforcement said there was no evidence to back that up. (In the days following the protest, right-wing blogs began falsely reporting that President Donald Trump had ordered federal agents to raid Islamberg in response to the weapons bust.)
Other protesters acknowledged that Islamberg could be a safe community, but maintained that the rally wasn’t against the town itself — it was a way of raising awareness about the dangerous fundamentalism they claimed was creeping into the country.
Protesters began gathering in the parking lot around 11 a.m., but the rally didn’t officially begin until Glasgow’s arrival at 1 p.m. Before they drove off, Glasgow suggested someone in the audience say a prayer. “Heavenly father, please look out for us today,” one attendee said while leading the prayer. “You’ve given us an amazing culture that allows us freedoms to do what many people in the world do not have the freedom to do. We are here to defend that culture. We are here to look over each other. We’re here to make sure we can keep what you have given us.”
Then he handed it off to Glasgow.
“I don’t believe the people inside here are peaceful and are standing for the same thing we stand for,” Glasgow said of Islamberg’s residents while kicking off the rally. The demonstration — which he clarified was not a protest, despite having claimed otherwise on Facebook just a few weeks before — was against terrorism and the religious fundamentalism that engenders it, he claimed. If Islamberg’s residents were as peaceful as they claimed to be, Glasgow said, why didn’t they just join his rally? “This is one of the biggest problems we have — we can’t get someone to come out and talk to us in a peaceful way,” Glasgow said.
Islamberg’s residents had made it clear they wouldn’t be engaging with the protesters in any way. The previous year, when the anti-Muslim group American Bikers United Against Jihad staged the first “ride for national security,” hundreds of counter-protesters had come out to support Islamberg’s residents. Only a handful of bikers showed up. This year, their strategy was a little different.
“The Muslims of America, Inc., will not waste time or efforts being preoccupied with public spectacles,” the group said in a statement. “These groups staging the July 15 rally represent a lucrative American Islamophobia movement, have no regard for government authority and continue to incite, provoke and perpetuate the Islamophobic propaganda and hysteria that plagues our country.”
In the days leading up to the rally, Glasgow claimed that counter-protesters from Islamberg would greet his group, as well as members of Antifa, which someone from the crowd described as “pussies.”
Instead, the 50 “patriots” riding “against jihad" drove in silence up a winding dirt road with nary a counter-protester in sight. The only people who witnessed their rally were a handful of local reporters. Islamberg’s residents were spending the sunny afternoon in their homes.