Today
Tue 21 September 2021

Nafeez Ahmed reports on the background of the controversial broadcaster whose think tank has been funded by pro-Donald Trump donors

LBC radio host Maajid Nawaz, chairman of the counter-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, is increasingly steeping himself in pro-Donald Trump conspiracy theories circulated by far-right and white nationalist groups – including supporters of the baseless QAnon.

But, while many have expressed surprise at how a former counter-extremism advisor to David Cameron could end up falling for the increasingly deranged ramblings of the alt-right, Nawaz’s embrace of its ethos was entirely predictable given that, for most of the past decade, the Quilliam Foundation has been supported by pro-Trump Republican donors through whom it has received some $3 million of ‘dark money’.

In the US, ‘dark money’ refers to funds donated legally to politically-active non-profit organisations which are not required by law to disclose their donors. ‘Dark money’ is not illegal money but its sources and channels are opaque.


From David Icke to Mein Kampf

Nawaz’s latest ‘shock jock’ move was to join Monaco-based millionaire Simon Dolan and others as a signatory to an open letter to the FBI and MI5 titled ‘The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Lockdown Fraud’. 

Dolan, whose lawsuit against the lockdown was thrown out of the High Court and Court of Appeal, is the executive producer of Renegade, a feature film promoting its co-producer – the notorious conspiracy theorist David Icke. 

A co-signatory to the letter, Stacey Rudin, writes for the American Institute for Economic Research, the Koch-funded think tank which sponsored the discredited ‘herd immunity’ Great Barrington Declaration on the Coronavirus pandemic. In December, she approvingly tweeted out an extract on “the big lie” from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf

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In response, one of her followers tweeted: “A teacher at school told me he when he was on an exchange visit to Germany after WW2 the lady said even then ‘but there must have been some problem with the Jews… otherwise they would not have persecuted them…’”


Political Patronage

Perhaps Maajid Nawaz would argue that he had no idea of Rudin’s seeming admiration for Hitler – Byline Times contacted him, but he did not respond to any requests for comment.

Regardless, his descent into the murky pit of alt-right conspiracy theory does not come out of the blue. Nawaz’s Quilliam Foundation receives the bulk of its funding through a corporate vehicle in the US, controlled by Republican Party surrogates and donors since 2011. Corporate records examined by Byline Times confirm that this patronage continues until today, revealing that Quilliam operates under the influence of the pro-Trump lobby – through which the think tank has been funded to the tune of some $2.9 million up to 2017.

In 2011, the Quilliam Foundation established a US non-profit entity based out of the same office as Gen Next Inc. – a non-profit in California which runs a political action committee that donates primarily to the Republican Party. One of Maajid Nawaz’s founding co-directors of Quilliam’s US branch was Chad Sweet, a former presidential campaign chair for Senator Ted Cruz – who has been among the loudest proponents of pro-Trump election conspiracy theories.

Sweet left Quilliam in 2013, but Gen Next CEO Michael Davidson remains a director with Nawaz himself as principal officer.

Davidson is a former political director of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County who previously served as co-chair of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Statewide Leadership Committee when he was California Governor. When Davidson stood as a candidate for chairman of the College Republican National Convention, he was endorsed by notorious racist and anti-Semite Ann Coulter, who hailed him as a pioneer of “the new McCarthyism”.

Gen Next Inc.’s board of directors also includes long-time Republican donor Yuri Vanetik, the national finance co-chair of the Republican Party of New York, who has held key financial leadership positions with the Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee, Republican Governors Association and the California GOP. 

Vanetik has direct ties to the Trump administration. In 2016, he was listed as a major donor on the Great America political action committee, the largest ‘super PAC’ in support of Trump’s presidential candidacy.

Previously, Vanetik served as the California co-chair and all American vice chair for the presidential campaign of Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani – who spearheaded Trump’s failed legal challenges to Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. 

Vanetik has a murky background as a lobbyist for foreign interests. When he first registered as a foreign agent, he had identified himself as vice president of Medowood Management, LLC. According to Washington news agency McClatchy DC, Medowood had made payments totalling $25,000 to sub-contractor Potomac International Partners, a Washington lobby run by Mark Cowan, a member of the Trump transition team and former CIA officer. Potomac’s own filings indicated that its lobbying was related to Ukraine’s Agrarian Party. 

Nawaz’s sponsor, Gen Next Inc., also runs its own political action committee, Gen Equity. In the last election cycle, 80% of Gen Equity’s donations went to the Republican Party. In other words, it is difficult to see how Maajid Nawaz is not on the pay-roll of pro-Trump Republican Party donors.


Quilliam: Flirting with Extremists

This is not the first time that Nawaz and Quilliam have flirted with far-right purveyors of xenophobia. 

Haras Rafiq, Nawaz’s chief executive at Quilliam, has previously worked with the notorious anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney – the former Reagan defence official who went on to inspire Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’. In 2010, Rafiq was a speaker hosted by the Middle East Forum run by Daniel Pipes, described by the Center for American Progress as an anti-Muslim “misinformation expert”. 

On 1 December 2015, Rafiq was grilled by parliamentarians during the House of Commons Select Committee inquiry into counter-terrorism. They wanted to know why a senior Quilliam staffer had signed a statement published by the Gatestone Institute – a far-right think tank publishing fake news conspiracy theories about Muslims and migrants.

Then Labour MP Chuka Umunna told Haras Rafiq during the hearing: “I just wonder what on earth an organisation like your own is doing associating with and signing statements organised by an organisation like the Gatestone.”

Gatestone – the board of governors of which has included top Trump donor Rebekah Mercer – not only promotes ‘white genocide’ theory, but has also partnered with Canadian far-right news platform Rebel Media despite its history of anti-Semitism.

Rafiq’s response was to deny any knowledge of Gatestone’s extremist publications and affiliations, promising to “look into” the issue. When asked by Naz Shah MP, currently Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion, about Chad Sweet’s connection to Quilliam, Rafiq claimed that the US entity was a completely “separate organisation” which had nothing to do with the UK organisation. 


Alt-Right Narratives

This is why it is arguable that the Quilliam Foundation is not really a counter-extremism think tank, but a co-opted ‘thick’ tank, “a great little vanity press for bog-standard reports that wouldn’t get published anywhere else” – but which amply serve the interests of its hard-right political benefactors. 

Shunned by the vast majority of counter-extremism experts, Quilliam has never been a credible voice, but it amplifies alt-right narratives (such as the claim that grooming gangs are a ‘Muslim problem’, disproven by the Home Office) and makes them palatable within a ‘national security’ framing. 

It is important to note that Nawaz secured a retraction and damages from the Southern Poverty Law Center when, in 2016, it erroneously included him on a list of anti-Muslim extremists. However, given the detail set out in this report, his views are perplexing, to say the least.

Critics could well be tempted to say that these links go some way towards explaining his apparent inability to distinguish fact from fiction in the 2020 US Presidential Election, and more recently in his bizarre choice of new bedfellows in the form of David Icke associates, Mein Kampf admirers, and COVID-19 deniers. 

But it doesn’t explain why LBC continues to provide him with a loudspeaker. It declined Byline Times’ request for comment.


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