BlueLeaks: Inside Cops’ Islamophobic Counterdrug Training

    This is a time bomb” was one student’s description of a September 2014 counterdrug training course for narcotics law enforcement. Both the instructor and students in the Midwest Counterdrug Training Center—a National Guard program that a federal watchdog says needs improved “oversight”—“repeatedly used” the hard-R N-word in a “narcoterrorism” class subsidized by the Department of Defense. “If anyone were to record his rants and leak them to the media your whole program would go down in flames.”

    This striking instance of overt anti-Blackness in the professional development program is one of many reports by students of racism, sexism and homophobia that have been revealed by leaked law enforcement intelligence records now known as BlueLeaks.

    But survey responses for Midwest Counterdrug Training Center (MCTC) classes reviewed by Filter also shine light on how counterdrug curricula on narcoterrorism are imbued with Islamophobia, with some instructors even peddling bigoted far-right conspiracy theories. 

    To be clear, “narcoterorrism” is not a term applied to just the Taliban or Al Qaeda, two organizations that trade in criminalized drugs. In fact, the word “predates 9/11,” explained Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the director of its Drug Policy Project. It “was used first in the Latin American context,” particularly Colombia and Peru. As President George W. Bush’s War on Terror got under way in the early 2000s, the term was used to make “congressional funding much easier” for wars in the Middle East, he told Filter, as well as for the United States’ global drug war. 

    Tree noted a key categorical distinction between the “terrorist” groups in Africa and Asia that sometimes sell drugs to fund their operations, and drug traffickers, like Latin American cartels, who engage in terroristic practices. For the most part, it appears that the narcoterrorism courses subject to student surveys focus on the former. 

    Specifically, the surveys reveal that the emphasis on “terrorists” ends up manifesting as a how-to for drug warriors to profile Muslims. An August 2014 class provided no “true discussion of what to look for” when identifying narcoterrorist organizations, instead only offering a “biased nonchalant lecture” on profiling based off of “obvious religious ties to Islam,” wrote a long-time National Guard employee in one survey response. “I really feel that MCTC needs to review the course material before this class is held again.”

    Islamophobia was also picked up on by another student in a March 2014 class. The instruction was “good” and offered “much needed information on the Islamic culture and the Somali community,” but the student took issue with the cherry-picking. “Most of the course is designed to show the negative side of the culture involved.  I believe showing some positive information would be helpful.”

    Courses seem to have Islamophobia baked into them, which some students already shared or were happy to adopt.

    Despite the two critiques, it appears that MCTC continued singling out Islam. In the following two years, at least three different narcoterrorism courses focused on the massively diverse cultures and histories of Muslims, meeting mixed reviews. One student said in August 2016 that the course was “informative on islam history,” but lacking in “narco details.” 

    This concentration on Islam, which seems intended to relate to “narcoterrorist” organizations in Africa and Asia, paying scant attention to Latin American cartels, was indicated back in 2014 as well. “Given the proximity and issues our region (Texas) faces from cartels’ narcotics trafficking  I was hoping this course would be more suited towards that kind of subject matter,” wrote a student in March of that year. “Instead the course was almost exclusively about Jihadist terrorists groups. Very little of the information and material presented was even in reference to narcotics trafficking.”

    One student in an August 2015 class considered its “strong point” to be “What I learned about the Islamic faith and how they do things,” and another in October 2016 rated the “strong point” to be “That law enforcement can help with the getting to terrorists and learning about Sunni and Shia Muslims, the differences and that a simple hand shake can give you information.”

    The courses seem to have Islamophobia baked into them, which some students already shared or were happy to adopt. At least two students respectively seemed to imagine Muslims as objects or as threatening others. “Maybe bring a Somalian (or middle eastern subject) to class one day so they could answer questions from their perspective. One who will not be offended if people ask question that could be (in ones opinion as) inappropriate,” a student suggested in March 2014, after taking the course that a fellow student had said only provided “negative information” on Islam.

    Some instructors seemed to peddle far-right conspiracies about Islamist “terrorists” invading the United States.

    Videos on “Middle Eastern crime culture and communtiy” shown at the March 2014 class were “very informative,” another survey respondent wrote, before adding a comment that implicitly denigrated Muslims and the Global South, while valorizing Christianity and the United States. “I wish the American public could have to their eyes opened to what is happening and realize how blessed we are to live in this country and to be able openly worship a sovergein [sic] God and practice Christianity.”  

    Some instructors seemed to peddle far-right conspiracies about Islamist “terrorists” invading the United States.

    “I strongly liked the presentation on radical Muslim Training camps in America,” wrote a student in 2013. “Strongly recommend this course to all law enforcement and even regular citizens as an eye opener to whats is going on in their back yards ie. a muslim training camp 2 hours away next to Binghampton NY.” 

    The respondent seems to be referring to a baseless Islamophobic conspiracy theory, popularized by Fox News in 2013, about Islamberg, a small community of mostly African American Muslims in Upstate New York that’s been alleged to be a training camp for militants. President Donald Trump has given credence to it at a 2015 campaign rally. 

    Another racist Trump-esque conspiracy was peddled in March 2014 when an instructor claimed “that the President,” at the time President Barack Obama, “secretly harbors Islamic terrorist views and is actively helping Jihadists ifiltrate the US government,” according to a student who identified such content as being “filled with personal biases.” These views were presented alongside videos “not produced by official Law Enforcement intelligence organizations or the US Government” and data lacking sources. It was, the student wrote, “conspiratorial to the point of being offensive.”

    In 2016, an instructor presented the “well-established connections” between what the student called “Muslim extremists” and the US government. 

    Another example in a September 2014 instruction saw narcoterroism instructor’s personal Islamophobic conspiracy integrated into a class. He “seemed to be airing his ‘pet peeves’” about “Islamic organizations” that “apparently operate or have a presence in his local law enforcement area of operations,” wrote a student. The instructor alleged a “disjointed association between Islamic organizations and organized crime/narcotic,” stating “how bad these guys were and that they were tied to other criminal activity.”

    As the United States reckons with the future—or end—of policing, some, like presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, call for more training to extract the racism at the core of modern policing. But the BlueLeaks documents reveal what drug-war cops are learning at MCTC, “the premier resource in the Midwest for counter-narcotic training and professional development”: Islamophobia.

    Photograph of a Counterdrug Training Center by the National Counterdrug Training Program via Public Domain


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