It is a disparate and often lonely brotherhood scattered across the US, fighting what it considers to be an existential threat: Islam. There are no headquarters, no organised structures, but members coordinate and communicate in pursuit of the common cause they call "counter-jihad". With different backgrounds and skills – religious and secular, tech and media-savvy – they wage personal campaigns through blogs, books and films to warn America of the grave peril it faces.
Critics call them peddlers of anti-Muslim hate speech and try to ignore them, but last week's mayhem in the Middle East thrust this fringe group into the spotlight. It says it is not chastened but vindicated by the assaults on US diplomatic missions – proof, they claim, of a war between America and a treacherous, expansionist religion founded centuries ago by a sexual deviant.
"In terms of high public profiles I'd say there is less than a dozen of us," said Eric Alan Bell, a California film-maker and activist. "We cooperate and communicate fairly regularly but there is no central control. Not everyone sings off the exact same sheet of music."
Bell (45), a one-time scourge of Islamophobia who changed sides after concluding Islam wished to subjugate the world, spoke to the Guardian from an undisclosed location after fleeing his home last Friday. He was mistakenly identified online as the maker of the trailer that inflamed violence across the Arab world.
"It's been crazy, completely insane, wave after wave of death threats. They're promising to torture me to death on video, to cut me into small pieces, sodomise me, a lot of screwed up sexual stuff."
Bell had nothing to do with Innocence of Muslims, the 14-minute video posted on YouTube that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a murderous paedophile. But like other homegrown counter-jihadis he has been shrouded in its miasma. "There is a mob mentality now. A lot of Muslims feel emboldened. Someone who has my address threatened to post it on Muslim sites so I had to move."
Bell scorned the video's ramshackle production values but endorsed its depiction of Muhammad. Citing the first amendment's protection of speech, Bell has posted images of a burning Qur'an and a Qur'an with a pig. He compares Islam to the mentality of a rapist. "It's all about submission."
Innocence of Muslims was produced and directed by an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (55) who lives outside Los Angeles, under the pseudonym Sam Bacile.
Bishop Serapion, head of the Coptic diocese in southern California, disowned Nakoula as a rogue operator who did not represent the community's views, even though Copts complain of persecution by Egypt's Muslim majority. The bishop said two veteran anti-Islamic activists, Terry Jones and Steve Klein, had tried to fuel Coptic anger.
Jones, a Qur'an-burning evangelical pastor from Florida, invited Copts to a protest he staged outside the Egyptian consulate in May 2011. Few attended. "We don't believe in insulting other religions," said the bishop.
Jones promoted the film's trailer but had no involvement in its making. Despite his visible media profile, Jones has no credibility among activists, said Bell. "No one that I know in counter-jihad is in touch with him. He's a lunatic, an embarrassment to us all."
Klein, a militant Christian activist and insurance salesman from Hemet, California, was a consultant on the film who reportedly advised on the script and logistics. He has more credibility than Jones within the movement but was a minor figure. He campaigned against mosque constructions and hosted a weekly programme berating Islam on an LA-based Arabic Christian outlet called The Way TV.
Much of the anti-Islamic circuit comprises similar characters who write blogs, self-publish little-read books and rub shoulders at events organised by the likes of Act for America that claims to "defend western civilisation". Other rallying points are conventions held by the Centre for Security Policy, a Washington-based ultra-conservative thinktank founded by Frank Gaffney, and talks by Robert Spencer, who runs Jihad Watch, and the writer David Horowitz.
"We meet at these things and get to compare notes," said Jim Horn, a retired diplomat who warns of sharia law atrocities in his self-published book Experiencing Islam. "We know what Islam's intentions are – to colonise us, turn us into another Egypt. I've received death threats because of my book."
The site loonwatch.com, which tracks radical anti-Islamic activists, calls them deluded and often unbalanced hate-mongers. Such threats tend to be worn as a badge of honour and cited as proof of Islam's intolerance, emboldening fresh inflammatory rhetoric and fresh threats, a self-perpetuating cycle.
What passes for intellectual debate within this largely self-contained milieu includes whether it is correct to distinguish between moderate and radical Islam, and whether to reach out to ordinary Muslims. Many self-styled counter-jihadis are secular, or wear their religion lightly, and frame their beliefs not in Christian but American terms, such as citing the first amendment in defence of their right to speak out.
They say the US government has been at best hoodwinked, at worst hijacked, by Muslim interests. Purported evidence includes the FBI's consultations with the Council on Islamic-American Relations (Cair) – a front, in the eyes of counter-jihadis, for Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida. The attendance by the Los Angeles county sheriff, Lee Boca, at Cair fundraisers has made him deeply suspect in their eyes.
With Barack Obama in the White House and a "liberal bias" in mainstream media, the movement relies on social media and low-budget films to spread its message. Bell, the film-maker in hiding, claims to have hundreds of thousands of readers of his Facebook fan page.
He did not consider violent assaults on US diplomatic missions across the Arab world as reason to tone down tirades against Islam. On the contrary. "I've put out YouTube videos which I think are just as offensive as the one which started all this. I don't plan to stop," he said. – © Guardian News and Media 2012