LIBERAL, Kan. — Kay Burtzloff, a 61-year-old small-business owner who’s lived in this area for nearly 20 years, likes to joke that she’s one of Liberal’s only liberals. The county, after all, went to Donald Trump by more than 30 points, and in the runup to the 2016 election, Burtzloff decided against putting a Hillary Clinton sticker on her car, fearing vandals. Tensions were high, she said.
It’s a conservative place for sure, but also a diverse one. For years, immigrant workers — from Vietnam, Mexico and eventually Somalia — have moved to this flat stretch of prairie and farmland on the Oklahoma border to work at the meatpacking plants. For the most part, people got along, Burtzloff said, but something changed when Trump entered the political scene.
“I will be the first to tell you I do not fear getting killed by a Muslim,” Burtzloff said. “I fear getting killed by an angry white guy. That is much more likely to happen.”
It’s here in a trailer in this town of 20,000 people that three white men — fueled by a steady diet of anti-Muslim online memes and conspiracy theories, and captivated by presidential candidate Trump, who proposed a Muslim ban and proclaimed that “Islam hates us” — appeared to discuss a plot to massacre Somali Muslim immigrants who lived and worked nearby.
Patrick Stein, 49, Curtis Allen, 50, and Gavin Wright, 52, are accused of plotting to bomb an apartment complex that housed many Somalis and its on-site mosque. The three are believed to have gathered fertilizer to make a bomb while they added to their arsenal of weapons and ammunition. But the FBI says it foiled their plans with arrests four weeks before the 2016 election. The men have been in jail ever since.
Their trial began last month. They face up to life in prison if convicted on charges involving weapons of mass destruction and civil rights violations.
Evidence presented in the trial painted a picture of an all-American brand of homegrown terrorism: angry white men radicalized by Islamophobic memes and fake online news articles whose path to violent extremism was accelerated by a divisive election cycle and a candidate who sounded like them.
For the last five weeks, the defendants have shuffled into a federal courthouse in Wichita shackled at the ankles. They’ve listened day in and day out as their own attorneys called them “knuckleheads” whose talk of mass murdering Muslims was just bluster. And they’ve heard prosecutors portray them as sinister would-be terrorists.
Closing arguments took place on Tuesday in the case. A nearly all-white jury is expected to deliver a verdict at any time.
Jurors were played hours of tapes made by an FBI informant who had masqueraded as a militiaman, recording the three defendants as they discussed plans and spewed genocidal hatred of Muslims.
“The Crusaders,” as they called themselves, splintered off from a larger Kansas militia group whose members testified that they thought the three men were too extreme. In the recordings, the men followed a familiar script of Islamophobia.
First there are the conspiracy theories. In one recording they referred to “civilization jihad,” the paranoid idea that American Muslims are secretly conspiring to take over the U.S.
Most Muslims aren’t going to behead people, one of the men said in the recording. Instead, “they sit back and fuck their brains out. Four kids per fucking man per year,” he added, referring to the idea that Muslims are trying to grow the size of their population as quickly as possible. “Their objective is to breed us out of existence.”
Another familiar part of the Islamophobic script was taking Islamic scriptures out of context. In another recording, the jury heard one of the men talk about “taqiyya,” an obscure Islamic concept that white supremacists have willfully misinterpreted to accuse Muslims of lying to non-Muslims in their quest to take over the world.
Because of taqiyya, one of the militiamen explained, Muslims can “deceive and lie. They can go out and drink at the bar, just like you and I, and then the son of a bitch would cut your throat.”
Ultimately, the recordings capture the three men in an ideological frenzy: America was on a crash course with the so-called Muslim world, and they had to prepare for what they called “Crusades 2.0.”
All of these outlandish lies and distortions about Muslims and Islam were abundant online, and a scroll through the three men’s social media profiles showed they devoured this propaganda with abandon — retweeting, liking, sharing and posting.
And they started to hear the messages of these anti-Muslim memes echoed in Trump’s stump speeches, possibly taking inspiration from their favorite candidate’s soundbites.
On the campaign trail, Trump often told the same widely discredited story of how an American general ― over a century ago ― dipped bullets in pig’s blood to kill Muslims (most of whom don’t eat pork). The three men talked openly of dipping their bullets in pig’s blood.
When Trump justified his Muslim ban by citing a discredited poll, Stein shared a meme on Twitter based on that same poll.
Muslims were “cockroaches,” according to recordings of the three men. “You have to kill all of them. They keep coming back,” Stein said. “You have to exterminate them all.”
The men mapped out Muslim targets on Google Earth, dropping “pins” on a map of Garden City, Kansas, a slightly larger town an hour and a half drive north of Liberal. Each pin was labeled “cockroaches.”
According to testimony in the trial, as Trump warned Americans of Somali refugees being terrorists in disguise — “the great Trojan horse of all time” — the men decided on their main target: a Garden City apartment complex home to many Somali Muslims, and the mosque where they prayed.
The men were conscious that this planned massacre might somehow hurt Trump’s chances at becoming president, according to prosecutors, so they scheduled the attack for the day after the election: Nov. 9. This act of terrorism, they said, would “wake people up.”
They started gathering materials for bombs. They did drive-by surveillance of the apartment building they wanted to target. They planned to blow it up as people were praying in the building’s mosque when, as Stein put it, the Muslims were “packed in like sardines.” The shock wave from the bombs, he said, would make “Jello out of their insides.”
The men met with an undercover officer, who they thought was a like-minded arms dealer. Stein grew to trust him.
“We must win this battle because I refuse to go down in history as the generation who lost the best country on the planet,” Stein wrote in an encrypted text to the undercover officer. Stein said he was ready to “take out as many of those bastards as I possibly can till my last breath.”
The three defendants haven’t really denied that they engaged in hateful anti-Muslim talk, which their attorneys have dismissed as blowing off steam, “locker room talk,” as one attorney put it. So instead they’ve been leaning on an entrapment defense, arguing that the plan never would have been possible without the federal government’s involvement.
The defense has argued that the three men were manipulated by fake news but that ultimately all their talk of killing Muslims amounted to angry rants and that they never would’ve carried out their plot had it not been for the FBI’s meddling.
Although Stein, Wright and Allen would ultimately bear responsibility for their alleged terrorist plot, there’s a growing body of evidence showing how Trump might be radicalizing his followers.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes rose dramatically in America in 2015 and 2016, according to FBI statistics, rising to levels not seen since 9/11. Experts have attributed this rise to the divisive election and the hostile rhetoric of Trump.
A recent study found that 83 percent of “hate violence” incidents aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern and Arab communities in U.S. from November 2016 to November 2017 were anti-Muslim in nature. One in five perpetrators of these violent hate crimes, the study noted, “invoked President Trump’s name, his administration’s policies, or his campaign slogans” during the attacks.
Last month, authorities arrested three militia group members in Illinois for the 2017 bombing of a Minnesota mosque. They were Trump fans. One of the men admired Trump so much that he submitted a detailed bid to build the president’s wall on the Mexican border.
Alexandre Bissonette, the Canadian man convicted of killing six men inside a Quebec mosque in January 2017, searched Trump-related content online over 800 times in the month leading up to his act of terror, prosecutors revealed during a sentencing hearing this week.
Bissonnette told police he was upset over Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s message of welcome to refugees after Trump implemented his ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries.
A conviction in Kansas this week isn’t a sure thing. “Even if they’re not convicted, I’m not convinced I want them in my community,” said Burtzloff, the Liberal businesswoman.
She rented out a storage unit to one of the three militiamen, where FBI agents found a notepad scribbled over with the names of chemicals needed for bombs. She also once owned the trailer park where another of the men kept his trailer, and where FBI agents found nearly 2,000 pounds of ammunition.
That trailer, and the other trailer in Liberal where the men allegedly hatched their plan, have both since been moved, their contents carried away by federal agents. Among the evidence collected was a manifesto the men had started.
“This is a call to action by all Americans,” they wrote. “Please do not just sit idle until we lose this once great nation.”
Killing Muslim refugees, their manifesto suggested, would make America great again.
Stein, the alleged ringleader of the group, once told the undercover agent by text that he worried about leaving a country that “is nothing resembling what I grew up in to my kids and grandkids.” When the agent pointed out the attack would kill children, Stein replied that he did not care. He thought an attack would help save America.
“We are dedicated patriots with love of country that doesn’t end,” Stein wrote, “and we are willing to die for this country if that is what it takes to get it back.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Patrick Eugene Stein in a photo caption.