California's peace officer training commission produced a training video, which remained available to law enforcement until this month, depicting Muslims inside prisons as likely to radicalize into extremist organizations that could attack U.S. targets. Authorities have said they will remove the video following Hatewatch's reporting.
The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), which sets the minimum selection and training standards for California law enforcement, produced the video in 2009. Hatewatch viewed the 109-minute video after receiving it from a source close to law enforcement. The video portrays a misunderstanding of Islam and Black Islamic communities that experts say was prevalent among law enforcement in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Rife with errors and misconceptions about Islam, the film features an accused grifter who paints a dire image of the “growing, not dissipating” threat posed by Islamic extremists. The video’s entire premise appears to be based on a single case from 2005 involving four suspects.
Hatewatch obtained POST’s documentation related to the video through an information request. Documents show that POST sent the video to 769 separate mailing addresses in 2010, including police departments, community colleges and law enforcement training facilities. It is unclear how many officers underwent the course on DVD. Hatewatch reached out to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSD), the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy and others on their use of the video. Only SDSD and the LAPD responded. SDSD information officer Amber Baggs confirmed to Hatewatch the video is still available on POST’s learning portal. Baggs also said the “San Diego Sheriff's Department does not use any training video titled ‘Radicalization.’”
POST confirmed to Hatewatch it added the training video to its “Learning Portal on 4/12/2012.” From 2012 to today, users accessed the video through the portal 2,664 times and there were 2,120 completions of the training. It is unclear how many currently employed officers have used the training, either from the online portal which could be showed to groups, or the roughly 800 DVDs that POST sent out in 2010.
Hatewatch obtained LAPD records through an information request that show 71 current employed personnel viewed or completed the training course. The most recent completion took place Aug. 16. An additional 43 retired officers had viewed or completed the training, according to LAPD documents.
POST requires over 660 hours of regular basic training, 14 hours of “perishable skills training” such as marksmanship and 24 hours of continuing professional training (CPT), both of which are spread out over two-year periods. The LAPD records list the training course meeting two hours of the CPT requirement.
The median smallest training class size was 14 and median largest was 28 for law enforcement basic training across the entire U.S. in 2013. If an average of 20 officers viewed each DVD and learning portal access since 2010, that would be roughly 58,000 officers.
POST public information officer Meagan Poulos told Hatewatch there “are over 4,000 training courses that POST develops and/or certifies and disseminates,” some of which are developed in partnership with other agencies. Poulos said the Radicalization training came about as “part of a Homeland Security Grant Program received in 2008 or 2009.”
She continued: “This is the first we are learning of issues with this training. Because of the age of the course and the outdated material we will take it off our Learning Portal and it will no longer be available.”
When asked if POST would take measures to address the biases and misinformation presented to California law enforcement through the video, Poulos said that since they just heard about the video’s problems, she did not “have an answer for you at this time. I’d be very interested in receiving the feedback on the content that you mentioned.”
Dr. Jesse De La Cruz, a prison gang expert and former member of the notorious Nuestra Familia prison gang who has spent time in California correctional facilities throughout various periods beginning in the 1960s, told Hatewatch the video’s characterization of Muslims is “not true.”
De La Cruz explained there have been Muslims in California prisons since his first stint behind bars: “They stick to themselves. They adhere to their Quran. They’re very respectful. They don’t get involved in prison politics.”
De La Cruz, who testifies in court on prison gangs, said California authorities wanted “to create hysteria” about Muslims because it “promotes their agenda.”
Jamiyat Al-Islam Al-Saheeh
The video’s outline and script demonstrate a deep lack of understanding of Islam from POST and the experts who contributed to the production.
The inspiration for the video appears to come from a group called Jamiyat Al-Islam Al-Saheeh (JIS). Kevin James, an inmate at Folsom State Prison, started JIS inside the facility. Four men made up JIS, including Levar Haney Washington, another inmate. Washington was paroled, then recruited two more men from a mosque. They were convicted of plans to attack U.S. military infrastructure, synagogues and targets related to the Israeli government. Authorities sentenced James to 16 years in 2009.
There was never a known connection between JIS and foreign extremist organizations. But the video conflates JIS with jihadi extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and also Hamas and Hezbollah. The video also displays images related to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), an Egyptian Islamist political organization with offshoots throughout the Middle East. MB became a common boogeyman for anti-Muslim figures, who brought distrust for the group into mainstream U.S. politics.
These group’s ideologies are different. Al-Qaeda and similar armed extremist groups follow a particular extremist branch of Sunni Islam that wishes to expand an Islamic caliphate over large swathes of the earth. This imagined caliphate typically corresponds to the peak of the Islamic empire that stretched from Spain to modern-day India. Al-Qaeda planned and conducted the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hamas, the political party and armed group that runs the Israel-occupied Gaza Strip, is a Palestinian nationalist Sunni Islamic group. Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and paramilitary organization, is also a nationalist group. But they follow the Shia branch of Islam.
All these groups adhere to differing beliefs on Islamic practices. Al-Qaeda, however, is by far the most conservative. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas collaborate with al-Qaeda. Hezbollah has even fought al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.
The training materials also conflate these groups with others tied to the Nation of Islam, an antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ hate group whose beliefs are outside mainstream Islam.
Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Greater Los Angeles office, told Hatewatch he was not surprised authorities produced the video. This type of ignorance regarding Islam was prevalent in the years following 9/11, but he was surprised the video is still in use.
No tattoos in Islam
The video dramatizes a recruitment and radicalization scenario. In one scene, an actor portraying the part of a Muslim prisoner rails against the historic crusaders who conquered the Holy Land, comparing them for listeners to modern-day U.S. military in the Middle East.
The actor, who is Black, calls U.S. military the “real terrorists” and says Muslims, who are the “carriers of the jihad,” will recreate the world according to the Quran. He reminds the listeners that Muslims “do not smoke [and] do not drink,” but they “serve Allah.”
The video then shows one of the listeners, whom authorities later identify as Jerome Curtis, speaking to his partner during a prison visit. Curtis informs his partner that he converted to Islam and tells her she must do the same. He mentions cutting out pork and alcohol from their diets.
In the following scene, the speaker and Curtis meet outside a prison cell as Curtis prepares for release from prison. Curtis shows the speaker his arm, which now has a tattoo showing a crescent moon and star. The speaker responds: “The mark of Allah!”
Muslims are prohibited from smoking, drinking and eating pork under most circumstances. But Sunni Islam also prohibits tattoos and branches of Shia Islam strongly discourage them. Outside of the dramatization, the video shows numerous incarcerated individuals with Islamic tattoos, including those depicting affiliation with Hamas and Hezbollah. It remains unclear why these individuals decided to get these tattoos. Ayloush explained that no devout Muslim would do so.
One of the video’s speakers, criminal intelligence specialist Suzanne George, acknowledges the prohibition of tattoos. The video does not explain, however, why radicalized Muslims would tattoo themselves, other than a lack of knowledge of Islam. However, the video also depicts radicalized Muslims attending mosque and studying religious texts.
California law enforcement previously came under fire for “spreading misinformation” about Islamic prison tattoos after hackers leaked a PowerPoint presentation with some of the same tattoos. Deputy John Williams of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department created the presentation, titled “Radical Islamist Tattoos,” which features many of the same misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of Islam as the training video.
The National Interest reported the presentation had been shared across the U.S. in Fusion Centers, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiative that allows sharing of intelligence between law enforcement from the local to federal levels. As of 2018, DHS recognizes 79 Fusion Centers. Reports show the tattoo presentation made it to Houston, Texas, where a police officer presented the misinformation to concerned parents after the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, which was linked to extremism.
One of the experts, Los Angeles Bureau of Investigation & Intelligence specialist Mahnaz Mondegari, contributed to both the presentation and the training video.
The final scene of this dramatization shows two corrections officers inside the listener’s cell. They confiscate papers, one of which features “Hamas” in bold text.
“Looks like terrorist stuff,” one officer says.
“It sure does,” another replies. “I’ll be giving his parole officer a call shortly.”
Another scene shows police and a parole officer visiting the home of Curtis, whom the parole officer says now identifies as “Shariah Abdul al-Assi.” His mother tells the officers that Curtis is at the mosque and that Islam has changed his life for the better. Officers conduct an armed search of the home and find an office featuring anti-Israel and Hamas posters.
The segment includes mail with large Turkish script and an Istanbul postmark. The program’s telecourse outline describes this as “Jail mail that has his former cellmate and teacher’s name on it,” an apparent reference to the speaker who radicalized Curtis. Officers also refer to the mail as “jail mail” in the video. They say that points to continued radicalization, without explaining why a letter from a California correctional facility would be routed through Turkey before delivery to a California resident.
The video and the telecourse outline document both characterize basic adherence to Islamic lifestyle as warning signs of extremism.
William Fogarty, a former police detective who comments throughout the video, says the lifestyle changes Curtis’ mother describes, including “looking for a job” and involvement “in prayer services … doesn’t necessarily mean he’s completely changed his criminal behavior. All we see is that he’s just becoming more and more involved in the radical element.”
21 Clets, a police officer training service where Fogarty is a featured instructor, lists Fogarty as a lieutenant with “a Northern California Sheriff’s Office.”
When discussing examples of radicalization, criminal intelligence specialist Suzanne George says praying “more than a moderate Muslim” could be a sign.
California Department of Corrections officer Matt Seese, another commenter, says, “These are gonna be the guys that could be the next 9/11.”
Ayloush expressed dismay at these comments and said they are unfounded. No scientific study suggests “people praying … growing a beard, associating with a mosque or wearing a hijab has anything to do whatsoever with terrorism or radicalization,” he said. “For me, it’s offensive when they link my prayers, my basic practices of Islam, with radicalization, violence and terrorism.”
Ayloush said the so-called “Islamophobia Industry” was partly responsible for such beliefs. He pointed to the speeches and classes given to law enforcement by anti-Muslim groups and individuals after the 9/11 attacks.
The FBI recommended anti-Muslim extremist Robert Spencer’s book for learning about Islam in 2009, Wired reported. It is unclear when Spencer’s work was first recommended, but an FBI spokesperson told Wired in 2011 the book was off its list. The FBI pulled the books after Muslim, Arab and South Asian advocacy groups wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security in 2011 asking for an investigation into the books and anti-Muslim training.
Atlanta radio station WABE, a National Public Radio affiliate, also reported anti-Muslim training courses in Georgia’s POST in 2018. Former police chief and Army Lt. David Bores, an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist who was a mainstay in Southeastern law enforcement training, instructed the course. Bores sometimes worked with former FBI agent and anti-Muslim conspiracist John Guandolo. Guandolo once trained law enforcement across the country, though his bookings have lessened significantly.
One of the featured speakers in the training video, George Akkelquist, seems to have been an in-demand expert for such speeches.
Akkelquist begins the training video by painting the threat of Islamic extremism as “a radicalization process and a radical ideology that is growing, that is not dissipating. Just because we don’t have an attack. It doesn’t mean it’s not growing. The more it grows, the more of a law enforcement issue it’s going to be.”
Akkelquist has presented himself as an expert on Islamic extremism for years. Data brokers list him as a former officer of the Counter-Threat Institute International, a private company that claims to provide “state of the art consulting and operational counter threat and counter-terrorism services tailored to the specific needs of the agencies we serve.” There is little further public information on the company.
Akkelquist appears in a list of recommended speakers for the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association’s Executive Training Institute, a yearly conference, which metadata suggests an individual created in 2015. The document lists Akkelquist’s specialty as “Radical Islam/Terrorism.” Critics note “radical” and “terrorism” are vague and generally applied only to Islam, which allows those in power to interpret as they see fit. The document says the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended him.
The brochure for the California Reserve Peace Officers Association’s 2015 Training Conference for Reserve Peace Officers, Search and Rescue, Volunteers in Policing, Reserve Coordinators and Full Time Officers lists Akkelquist as teaching the event’s opening class.
However, there is little information as to why Akkelquist should be considered an expert.
Stephen Russell, a self-described inventor and technology entrepreneur, filed a lawsuit against Akkelquist and Nir Maman of Israeli Krav Systems, Inc., a U.S.-based private security and intelligence firm, that accused them of “a criminal enterprise to victimize Plaintiff through an unlawful pattern of extortion, mail and wire fraud, and other unlawful conduct.”
The lawsuit alleges Akkelquist and Maman told Russell he “was on a “list” created by the Russian government” that put him in grave danger. They allegedly continued over months to make similar claims and say they were taking steps to ensure his safety. The lawsuit further alleges that Akkelquist and Maman both exaggerated their qualifications. At one point, Akkelquist said he “worked on a special mission in Guantanamo Bay” and “the Hawaii airport dealing with issues concerning Hamas and Hezbollah,” the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit says Russell would later discover these claims were false. This came after Russell wired over $1 million in funds to Maman and Akkelquist.
Akkelquist's lawyer told Hatewatch he denies the allegations in the civil suit. Maman, who is representing himself, did not respond to a request for comment but has denied allegations in court filings. The case is ongoing.
California POST was unable to find communications with Akkelquist or evidence of payment from the time of the training video.
A POST representative said subject matter experts are not compensated, though they “may have been reimbursed for their travel expenses under the Letter of Agreements (LOAs). Since this was back in 2009/2010, POST no longer has records of the LOAs due to the records retention period.”
Photo illustration by SPLC