Heda Umarova first encountered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones while scouring the Internet to understand how her friend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went from free-wheeling student to terrorism suspect.
Umarova, a 21-year-old Chechen native from Chelsea, Massachusetts, found logic and comfort in Jones, who uses his 17 hours of weekly radio broadcasts and a sprawling online empire to advance the idea that the U.S. government played a part in the April 15 explosions that killed three and injured more than 260 at the Boston Marathon.
“A lot of it is ‘Oh my god, he is crazy,’ but a lot of stuff he says make sense,” said Umarova, who grew up knowing the Tsarnaev family. “He brings up a lot of valid points.”
She and others obsessed by the violence have coalesced around Jones, 39, expanding the reach of a man who exemplifies the Internet conspiracy industry. Sponsored by Midas Resources Inc., a closely held company that sells gold, his show is broadcast by Sirius XM Radio Inc. (SIRI:US) on a channel programmed by Clear Channel Communications Inc. (CCMO:US) and on roughly 80 terrestrial stations.
The ideas espoused by Jones, who says he brings in $7 million a year, have prompted groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, to accuse him of fomenting hate. His guests of note include both extremes of the political spectrum -- from U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky on the right to former U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich on the left.
“Alex Jones is probably the most important conspiracist in terms of influence in the U.S. now that Glenn Beck has lost his chair on network news,” said Chip Berlet, former senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a Somerville, Massachusetts, nonprofit that says it advances social justice.
Views of Jones’s website, Infowars.com, spiked about sevenfold during mid-April as the world focused on the bombings, according to Alexa.com, a San Francisco company that tracks Internet analytics. By comparison, views to competing websites run by Rush Limbaugh and Beck were flat, the data show.
Jones says governments have a history of staging terror attacks and cites the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany that preceded the Nazi rise to power. From there he zips to present-day U.S. politics, the Boston attacks and the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
“We have a criminal government at many levels and so nothing they say can be trusted or believed,” Jones said in a telephone interview from Austin. “And now they supposedly have this guy saying he did it all. I’m sure after they torture the hell out of him, he’ll say what ever they want him to say.”
Jones took his ideas to Britain last week to protest the annual Bilderberg organization meeting, a group of global leaders who gather behind closed doors that this year included U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde.
Jones garnered attention during a BBC television interview where he yelled “You will not stop freedom” and “Humanity is awakening” as host Andrew Neil made hand gestures indicating Jones was crazy.
Every weekday, Jones hosts a three-hour program from a 20,000-square-foot studio in Austin, Texas. He does a two-hour live version Sundays, assisted by a staff of 50. The program, or portions of it, is carried on stations including Clear Channel’s KTCN in Minneapolis, KLBJ in Austin and WVNJ which broadcasts into New York City.
Talkers Magazine, a trade publication, rates Jones as the 66th most influential radio host in the U.S. The measure understates his reach because it doesn’t include audiences on satellite or online, said Michael Harrison, editor and publisher. Jones’s YouTube channel, for example, has more than 300 million views.
“Alex Jones has one of the largest general radio listenerships in America,” Harrison said in a telephone interview from Springfield, Massachusetts. “There is a huge audience in the world for that type of rebellious, anti-power, anti-establishment take.”
The Boston bombings presented a platform for Jones to spread his view that the U.S. government benefits from terrorism -- and even perpetrates it -- as part of a larger plot to create a police state.
“Even if they are not staging the terror, and undoubtedly they are staging some of it, they are using it to take my liberties,” Jones said. “So they are part of the terrorism equation regardless.”
After the first reports of the bombings April 15, Jones activated Boston correspondent Dan Bidondi, a rotund wrestler with a shaved head, who shouted the first question to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick at a news conference.
“Is this another false-flag, staged attack to take our civil liberties away?” asked Bidondi.
The governor’s answer was “No. Next question.”
Jones grew up in Rockwall, Texas, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of Dallas before his family moved to Austin while he was in high school. He took courses at Austin Community College and then hosted a live a call-in show on a local cable-access station.
He earned his first measure of celebrity after the 51-day federal siege near Waco, Texas, in 1993 that resulted in the deaths of 75 members of the Branch Davidian cult. Jones made documentaries about it.
“Austin at that time became a hotbed of conspiracy theorists and Alex became like the star quarterback,” said Kevin Booth, 51, who helped him and was the best man in his wedding.
“Before that, really the biggest conspiracy anybody really had was the Kennedy assassination,” Booth said. “All these conspiracy theorists saw this Waco thing happen and it was kind of game on.”
Jones said he got hired on a now-defunct station in Austin, before being fired for tirades in 1999.
He turned to Ted Anderson, who had just started Genesis Communications Network, a radio syndication company in Burnsville, Minnesota, founded to “promote the importance of investing in precious metals,” according to its website.
Anderson uses Genesis to bolster sales for parent company Midas Resources. He is president of both.
Jones frequently rails against the Federal Reserve and has espoused a return the gold standard to control spending and take monetary policy out of the hands of the government.
When Jones pitches gold “people will respond,” said Anderson. “We do a lot of business with Alex Jones’s listeners.”
He said he is at peace with the content of the program.
“The man just wants to uncover the truth and he is willing to look a little further for it,” Anderson said.
Sirius XM, which has more than 24 million listeners, broadcasts the Alex Jones Show daily from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. In an e-mail, Patrick Reilly, a senior vice president for communications, said “his show is not programmed by us nor is the host, show or channel under our control.”
Reilly, whose company is the product of a 2008 merger, said the show is broadcast due to a “pre-existing agreement” between XM and Clear Channel. New York-based Sirius reported $3.4 billion in revenue last year.
Tiffany Johnson, a spokeswoman for Clear Channel, which is the biggest U.S. radio station owner, declined to comment on Jones’s program.
Jones said additional revenue comes from books and films with titles such as “Police State 4: The Rise of FEMA” and “ENDGAME: Blueprint for Global Enslavement” that he sells on his website.
Fans can also purchase radiation sensors, water purifiers and seed vaults. There’s even a dating service. In one posting, a 48-year-old divorcee named Chris says she’s looking for a man who believes that the end of civilization is nigh.
“It’d be nice to find someone to snuggle in a bunker with,” she wrote.
Other fans are less harmless. One was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, according to an Associated Press story. Jared L. Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 13, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, saw a 9/11 conspiracy film Jones made, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“He does not build bombs, he builds bombers,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “He feeds sick minds all over this country, and some of those people engage in real-life terrorism.”
Jones dismissed the notion that he bears any responsibility.
“It is an outrageous, fascist demonization to connect free speech to terrorism,” he said.
Jones’s ideas have surfaced in more formal venues. New Hampshire lawmaker Stella Tremblay, a Republican, said Jones’s website helped convince her that official accounts of the terrorist attacks are not reliable. She suggested that Boston bombing victim Jeff Bauman, photographed in a wheelchair with mangled legs, wasn’t really hurt.
“He was not in shock. He was not in pain,” Tremblay said during a radio interview. “If I had had those types of injuries, I’d be screaming in agony.”
After the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, an article on Infowars.com argued that Adam Lanza didn’t use an AR-15 Bushmaster to kill 20 children. Instead, the piece said, authorities lied to create a pretext for an assault-weapons ban.
State police put out a news release to quash that idea.
“What they are spreading, simply stated, is lies,” Lieutenant J. Paul Vance, a spokesman, said in an interview.
Confusion over basic facts makes informed public debate impossible, said Jonathan Kay of Toronto, who interviewed Jones for his 2011 book “Among the Truthers.”
“You can’t debate national security with somebody who thinks 9/11 was an inside job,” he said. “He’s a showman.”
And his show provides validation and inspiration for Heda Umarova and her followers. Their #freejahar network is raising money for the Tsarnaev family.
“When I first started I thought nobody would support this,” Umarova said. “I thought I would take all the heat. I expected nobody to support what I was doing.”
Instead, her social media following increased 16-fold.
To contact the reporters on this story: Annie Linskey in Boston at firstname.lastname@example.org; Prashant Gopal in Boston at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at firstname.lastname@example.org