The anti-Muslim hate group Understanding the Threat (UTT) is shutting down. UTT is the organization for which John Guandolo, a former FBI agent turned anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist, ran his Islamophobic training programs and other activities.
In a June 5 email titled “UTT’s Farewell,” Guandolo told supporters, “We have to shut our doors.”
“The assaults from our adversaries financially and legally have been withering and overwhelming,” Guandolo said via email.
Guandolo is one the leading anti-Muslim figures in the country. He claims the religion of Islam is at war with the U.S. and pushes conspiracy theories of Muslims being a fifth-column threat working to subvert the country from within. He also advocates against building mosques in the U.S., claiming them to be “where battles are planned, jihadis trained [and] weapons stored.”
It’s unclear if Guandolo and his staff plan to relaunch the group or start something new. “I hope you all will hear from us again soon,” he said in the email.
UTT did not respond to an email request for comment from Hatewatch. The group’s website is also now defunct.
Guandolo resigned from the FBI in 2008, when he was being investigated by the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility in connection with the prosecution of former Congressman William Jefferson, D-La., whom Guandolo as an FBI agent had been tasked with investigating for corruption. According to documents filed in court, Guandolo admitted to having affairs with other agents and a confidential source he was assigned to protect while working the case – something he later said he “expressed deep remorse for.”
He left the FBI at a time when a cottage industry of anti-Muslim figures self-styling as counterterrorism experts began taking root. He was able to leverage his FBI credentials to gain notoriety and became woven within the organized Islamophobia network when it solidified around 2010. He has associated with other SPLC-designated anti-Muslim hate groups, including the Center for Security Policy, ACT for America and The United West. Guandolo made headlines in 2013 when he appeared on a web show associated with The United West and falsely accused John Brennan, whom then-President Barack Obama had nominated to lead the CIA, of being a secret Muslim convert.
One of the main audiences Guandolo sought to court was local law enforcement. Through UTT, he was regularly booked to give counterterrorism seminars. These seminars, however, were steeped in anti-Islamic bias. An undercover report from Al Jazeera in its documentary “Islamophobia, Inc.” showed Guandolo using a training seminar to push problematic rhetoric, including equating U.S. Muslim civil rights organizations and Muslim student groups to terrorists. Former FBI agent Rick Shwein reviewed footage from Al Jazeera and said Guandolo stokes “a rhetoric of fear” and “what he’s advocating is dangerous.”
In another training from 2011 put on in Ohio by the Columbus Division of Police, Guandolo falsely accused a college professor of having ties to terrorism. The training was suspended after attendees reported the “presenters were making offensive statements” about the professor.
Despite the bias, Guandolo was still booked for training seminars by law enforcement officials. Sheriff Scott Jenkins of Culpeper County, Virginia, booked Guandolo twice in 2014 and 2017. News4, an NBC affiliate in Washington, revealed in an investigative report in April that Guandolo was also listed among dozens of others as an auxiliary deputy in Culpeper County.
Guandolo’s trainings have been publicly opposed by the Muslim civil rights group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR has been tracking UTT’s anti-Muslim activity throughout the years. Hatewatch reached out to Corey Saylor, director of research and advocacy at CAIR, about UTT’s shutting down.
“John Guandolo sought to profit by spewing from Islamophobic propaganda to law enforcement,” Saylor told Hatewatch via email. “We are pleased to see that his anti-Muslim hate organization has found no profit margin in their bigotry.”
Guandolo reportedly assaulted former Sheriff Richard Stanek of Hennepin County, Minnesota, in 2017, which resulted in a $600,000 civil lawsuit against him. UTT was invited to take part in a law enforcement conference in Reno, Nevada, in 2017 organized by the National Sheriffs’ Association. Stanek had previously been on Guandolo’s radar. In an Oct. 24, 2016, article posted on UTT’s website, Guandolo claimed that under Stanek, the “jihadi threat” in Minnesota had “increased exponentially.”
Stanek and Guandolo met up during the conference to discuss the article, according to the lawsuit. Per the suit, an altercation ensued in which Stanek claims Guandolo assaulted him. Stanek filed a restraining order against Guandolo in 2017 after the incident. He was later awarded $600,000, citing claims of pain and suffering and physical disfigurement from the reported altercation with the former FBI agent.
Civilians were audience for UTT’s training. Guandolo offered various “Train the Trainer” programs that offered to “demonstrate how to legally research, identify, and dismantle communist & jihadi networks at the local level.”
In April 2018, UTT embarked on a five-city speaking tour across the Midwest warning of the “threat of the Islamic Movement.” After holding the first event in Des Moines, Iowa, the rest of the tour collapsed when the venues scheduled to host UTT canceled after public outcry from local advocacy groups and residents.
The advocacy organization Western States Center has worked to sound the alarm about UTT and organize against its anti-Muslim messages. Western States Center was one of the organizations that pushed back against UTT’s Midwest speaking tour.
“The closure of Understanding the Threat is a win for everyone who believes in equal rights under the law,” said Lindsay Schubiner, director of programs at Western States Center, in an email to Hatewatch. “For years, UTT has peddled bigotry, misinformation, and anti-Muslim conspiracy theories to law enforcement and civilians alike. But communities have pushed back, shutting down bigoted training after bigoted training, pressuring law enforcement to remove accreditation from his courses, and more.”
The Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy withdrew accreditation for Guandolo’s 2014 training in Culpeper County, Virginia, after receiving criticism. The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office in Kansas pulled its sponsorship for a UTT training in 2014 for similar reasons.
“It's an incredible example of how organizing and speaking out against hate can lead to significant change,” Schubiner said.
UTT remained active for the first six months of 2023. The group advertised a training in Keller, Texas, in February to equip citizens with “the tools to identify individuals and organizations hostile to liberty and flush them out of their local communities using lawful and creative actions taught by UTT.” In March, Americans 4 America, an Aurora, Colorado-based tax-exempt organization founded by former Colorado state Sen. John Andrews, held a fundraiser for UTT in Oklahoma City. Americans 4 America handled donations for UTT when it was active.
Despite this, UTT still announced its closure, writing in its farewell email, “we must end this phase of our work.”
Photo illustration by SPLC