PHOENIX – Jon Ritzheimer is no stranger to anti-Islam controversy.
As an ex-Marine who says he served two tours in Iraq, Ritzheimer has embraced his role as a “crusader” against the dangers that he says Islam poses to the American way of life. In May, he made headlines after organizing a heavily armed rally in front of a Phoenix mosque, which he said was in response to an attack by two gunmen on an event in Roseland, Texas, where caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed were displayed.
In addition to organizing subsequent rallies, Ritzheimer created a website dedicated to selling anti-Islamic propaganda, and regularly posts what many consider to be threatening and highly inflammatory videos to his Facebook page denouncing Islam.
Despite being reported multiple times to the FBI by Muslim advocacy groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the law enforcement agency has consistently refused to confirm or deny reports that it was investigating the anti-Islamic activist.
That changed last week after Ritzheimer posted a profanity-laden video to Facebook that showed him cocking a pistol and vowing to travel to New York to confront a Muslim publication for calling him a terrorist.
The FBI released a statement saying that it had notified its counterparts in New York after “becoming aware of a video which could be perceived as threatening the Muslim community in Hancock, NY.” What Ritzheimer didn’t expect? The notice would quickly escalate into a full-blown federal interstate manhunt after he reportedly terminated communication with federal officers somewhere in Pennsylvania.
On Nov. 30, the FBI office in Albany refused to say if it had located Ritzheimer or if they still considered him a threat. But when contacted by America Tonight the same day, Ritzheimer responded within hours. He sent a photo of himself standing in front of the FBI headquarters in Phoenix, along with a link to a post in which he explained his version of the events.
“I am a law abiding citizen and it’s unbelievable what I had to go through,” he wrote.
But while Ritzheimer seemed to make light of the whole saga, it’s easy to see how some people would say they feared that an armed confrontation was imminent.
I am a law abiding citizen and it’s unbelievable what I had to go through.
While he says he doesn’t condone violence and that the weapons are for defense only, those who are the target of Ritzheimer’s armed rallies and Facebook posts have grown increasingly alarmed at the movement’s violent anti-Islamic rhetoric.
One video shows him shooting a copy of the Koran with a semi-automatic rifle and pistol, and other videos have garnered upwards of a million views.
The video that set off a manhunt shows him brandishing a gun, as he announced his plans to confront the Muslim publication.
In October, before becoming the object of a federal interstate manhunt, Ritzheimer gave America Tonight an interview in Phoenix while attending the “Global Rally for Humanity,” another armed, anti-Islamic rally he’d helped to organize in front of the city’s Islamic mosque.
In May, the protestors who joined Ritzheimer in Phoenix were united in their view of Islam as an existential threat to the American way of life. Many said they feared that Sharia Law was taking over the country. Most of the people we spoke with held out little hope that Islam could co-exist with other religions.
Osami Shani, president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, says he has now experienced multiple armed protests outside of his mosque. He says the protests have nothing to do with free speech and are designed to intimidate peaceful worshipers. He’s concerned that the anti-Islamic rhetoric will inevitably lead to violence against Muslims.
On Monday, the FBI would not say if it knew of Ritzheimer’s current whereabouts. The FBI did, however, offer a statement.
“After recently becoming aware of a video which could have been perceived as threatening against the Muslim community in Hancock, N.Y., the FBI immediately took steps to notify our federal, state and local partners,” the statement said. “The FBI and New York State Police have maintained communication with the community to keep them informed of pertinent information. As always, we remain committed to protecting the civil liberties of Americans and make every effort to preserve their safety.”
The FBI has declined to say if Ritzheimer will be charged for the recent Facebook threats.