It was December 2015, and Americans were worried.
Gunmen had just murdered fourteen people at a San Bernardino, California office building in the name of ISIS, now known as Islamic State. Hundreds of miles away, the Houston Independent School District felt that it needed to reassure parents about their childrens’ safety.
So naturally, they had an officer give a presentation about Islamist prison gang tattoos in Los Angeles County.
The presentation was a flop. The school had to apologize for its officer’s “culturally insensitive” comments about Arabs, and puzzled parents complained to local media about the jarring presentation. It was not clear “what a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office slideshow about prison gangs has to do with ‘school safety,’” wrote Houston Press reporter Craig Masilow.
Nearly five years later, the National Interest can answer that question. The infamous slideshow has reappeared as part of BlueLeaks, a massive leak of private law enforcement and homeland security data, revealing just how a slideshow about prison gangs made its way from California to Texas.
Worst of all, the full slideshow shows that law enforcement in multiple states were working from a document riddled with factual errors and bad information.
BlueLeaks tells the story of how America’s long war in the Middle East came home. Local law enforcement have been confronted with questions way beyond their expertise, Everything from ironic Florida Man tweets to Arabic gang tattoos have become counterterrorism concerns.
And the domestic shockwaves of the War on Terror are here to stay. Even as U.S. forces draw down from Iraq and Afghanistan, bulletins about Islamist terrorist threats continue to bounce around police stations across America. Even if Islamist terrorism becomes a distant memory, the homeland security infrastructure created to fight it could live on for years.
This particular slideshow was created in 2010 by Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy John Williams, with contributions from law enforcement officers across California, as part of a training program for jail staff.
It warns that “the true meaning of each tattoo rests entirely with the wearer alone,” but also says that “[i]f you observe a Islamic related tattoo on a inmate please report it to your local Terrorism Liaison Officer.”
Twenty years ago, such a slideshow may have stayed in the prison system. But a system created after 9/11 allowed it to spread across the country.
In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, experts called for better information-sharing between local, state, and federal authorities. The Department of Homeland Security created “fusion centers,” offices and databases that allowed different levels of law enforcement to share information about terrorism.
A report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 2012 found that the Department of Homeland Security had spent between $289 million and $1.4 billion supporting fusion centers.
“Fusion centers bring together federal, state, and local partners,” said Bennett Clifford, a senior research fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “In theory, the system is a good idea.”
Unfortunately, fusion centers may also have contributed to the spread of disinformation.
Law enforcement usually has to operate under a standard of “reasonable suspicion” to store information about potential crimes, but the fusion centers lower the bar, explained Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at New York University’s Brennan Center.
“You get rid of the guardrails and you have all sorts of information getting collected by fusion centers,” she said. “Law enforcement, with the best of intentions, can misinterpret information and draw connections that aren’t really there.”
And they can share these misinterpretations through a network of 79 federally-recognized fusion centers across America.
The slideshow first entered this network when officials shared it through the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, a Southern California fusion cell.
“The PowerPoint was created and disseminated to other law enforcement agencies in keeping with the mission of the Joint Regional Intelligence Center,” Lieutenant Tom Looney of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told the National Interest in an email.
Williams retired in 2013, and the slideshow is no longer used for training by the Los Angeles County Sheriff, Looney confirmed. But the slideshow continued to float around the nationwide homeland security network.
BlueLeaks found the slideshow in a “situational awareness” bulletin, marked unclassified but sensitive, on the servers of the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, a fusion cell in Texas.
“One of ARIC’s daily functions is to actively share information whether it is a pass through from other agencies or our own information,” Tara Long, public information specialist at the Austin Police Department, told the National Interest. “We do not control the content of what our partner entities disseminate.”
She denied that Austin police ever used the slideshow for training.
But the incident in Houston showed that it was still in use years after being retired.
Experts pointed out how the slideshow could send local law enforcement on a wild goose chase by misinterpreting or taking symbols out of context.
“What a correctional officer takes away from it versus what someone in the educational system takes away from it are different,” Clifford said.
The slideshow was riddled with basic factual errors, misidentifying the Serbian secular reformist group Otpor as “a Muslim youth movement” and a war memorial in Baghdad as the “Crossed Swords of Hamas.
And it was filled with what Clifford called “analytic leaps.”
“Tattoos are, for most groups that prisons are trying to get a handle on, a good source of intelligence,” he said. “That doesn’t really work for Islamist groups.”
He added that “some prison systems have dedicated intelligence shops” but find it “hard to source specialized expertise.”
Many of the “Islamic” symbols may be unrelated to either Islamist political movements or even the religion of Islam.
One slide even shows a crucifix alongside the words “believer,” “faith,” and “unity” in Arabic. There are millions of Christian Arabs and Arabic-speaking Christians around the world
“Another thing to consider is that some of these people might be part of gangs that adopt pseudo-Islamic imagery,” said Ismail Royer, director of the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute.
Some of the groups mentioned in the slideshow, such as the El Rukns and the Black Guerrilla Family, are no more Muslim than the Shriners, he pointed out.
Clifford had commented on several slides posted by a National Interest reporter on Twitter, writing that “AK-47s and crossed swords are common tattoos” and “[t]attoos are pretty clearly [forbidden in Islam] even if some of these guys don’t know it.”
Recent converts to Islam might get Islamic symbols tattooed out of ignorance—and violent extremists are “not always perfect adherents of Islamic law” in other ways—but tattoos tend to be a taboo in conservative Muslim circles, Clifford later explained to the National Interest.
And, of course, even adherence to conservative Islam is not necessarily a national security threat.
The slideshow is a sign of the “continued conflation of normal Muslim behavior with terrorist activity,” Patel said. “There’s a confusion between Islam and Islamist, and Islamist and terrorist.”
The slideshow does not make that distinction, often using “Islamic,” a religious term, interchangeably with “Islamist,” a political term. The presentation also shows Islamic religious symbols and basic Arabic texts alongside images of weapons.
Royer, who spent fourteen years in prison for militant Islamist activities, claims that Muslim communities in federal prisons are dominated by the conservative Madkhali school of thought, which rejects violent rebellion and even some forms of political activism.
“Madkhalism, [although] it has its own problems, is very opposed to that sort of extremism,” he explained.
Ironically, non-Muslim prisoners may even play on the fear of Muslims and terrorism to frighten guards and other prisoners.
Clifford pointed to the “infamous” case of Casey Spain, a convicted sex offender who claimed that he wanted to commit acts of terrorism and eventually had an ISIS flag tattooed on his back.
“There’s no other way to describe it besides edgy,” Clifford said.
Royer had himself seen a fellow inmate sport an ISIS-themed tattoo “to freak people out.” The prisoner had gotten an infamous image of an ISIS massacre tattooed on his leg, telling other people that it looked “f---n’ gangsta.”
But the paranoia about Islamist militancy also has effects for Americans outside of prison walls. Misinformation like the tattoo slideshow can “affect law enforcement behavior” for the worse, as Patel points out.
Patel pointed the finger partly at the national fusion center system, which “really should be on the chopping block.”
The 2012 Senate report found that much of the information shared through fusion centers was “shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.”
Clifford said that “it’s part of a learning curve,” arguing that American officials now have a “growing understanding” of terrorism and militant Islamism.