The Sovereign Citizens movement is an anti-government ideology originating in the United States whose adherents believe they are free from rule or laws imposed by the supposedly ‘illegitimate’ US government. Actions by sovereign citizens vary widely in scope and intensity – from filing paperwork that purports to declare their “free man” status or liens and notices against government officials (“paper terrorism”) to criminal activities such as claiming rights to residences they don’t own or engaging law enforcement in sometimes deadly confrontations. A 2021 report by the FBI classified sovereign citizen violent extremists as a Domestic Violent Extremist (DVE) threat.
There is no uniform belief structure sovereign citizens adhere to; each person can decide which specific ideations or practices they will adopt. As a byproduct of the movement’s foundational beliefs in the superiority of individual rights and decisions over government mandates, self-identified “sovereign citizens” are loosely connected—and more so around ideological offshoots than organized groups.
Sovereign citizens can be of any race or nationality. While most sovereigns in the US are White, there exists a subset within the movement known as ‘Moorish’ sovereigns: Black adherents who hold pseudo-historical beliefs specific to African-American heritage. For example, Moorish sovereigns claim to be descendants of Moors who inhabited the Kingdom of Morocco, which signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the US in 1786 that officially recognized America as a sovereign nation. Moorish sovereigns cite that treaty to claim that Moors in the US have sovereign status, meaning they would be exempt from normal laws and regulations. While Moorish sovereigns generally adopt practices common among other sovereign citizens, their unique pseudo-historical perspective shapes their actions and tactics. An overview of those beliefs and instances where they manifested into real world harms, including criminal acts, is outlined below.
The Moorish sovereign movement draws from the religious teachings of the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA), founded in 1913 by Timothy Drew, who was later known as Noble Drew Ali. Drew Ali centered the MSTA on a desire to see Black citizens reclaim their self-identity and pride in a post-slavery society, and to see them adopt Muslim beliefs as present-day Moors. MSTA members were issued official identification cards stating their “birthrights as Moorish Americans.” (Moorish sovereigns also create their own ID cards but the original MSTA card states “I AM A CITIZEN OF THE U.S.A.”) As acknowledgment of their African and Moorish backgrounds, MSTA members added “El,” “Bey,” or both to their last names: a practice many non-MSTA Moorish sovereigns have also adopted. Moorish sovereigns’ alleged ties to Morocco are reflected in their attire; men often wear fezzes, which originated in the country.
The Moorish sovereign movement began to spread in the US in the 1990s, when groups and individuals latched onto MSTA beliefs that Moors inhabited what became the Americas hundreds of years before American Indians, thus granting them self-governing, “nation-within-a-nation” status, and exemptions from laws like paying taxes or regulations like those surrounding property ownership. However, several MSTA factions have disavowed the anti-government spin Moorish sovereigns put on their beliefs.
Washitaw Nation, formed in the mid-1990s in Louisiana and officially known as Empire Washitaw De Dugdahmoundyah, is arguably the earliest widely recognized Moorish sovereign group. Led by “Empress” Verdiacee “Tiara” Washitaw-Turner Goston El-Bey, the group claimed to be descended from the Ouachita tribe, ancient mound builders who settled thousands of years ago in what is now Louisiana, centuries before American Indians. In another illustration of how sovereigns base some of their beliefs on real world examples to bolster their assertion of indigenous status, they often cite Poverty Point, Louisiana, as proof of their claims of indigenous status. Poverty Point was constructed thousands of years ago by the Ouachita tribe, which Moors believe were descendants of Moors. Poverty Point is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often listed as a home address on Moorish identification cards.
Washitaw Nation members purchased their own documents such as drivers and marriage licenses, passports, and birth certificates to replace government-issued ones. Copies of these documents were seized by federal agents during a raid of Goston’s residence in 2000 as part of an investigation into tax evasion, wire fraud, and mail fraud; she was never charged with a crime.
When the Empress died in 2014, the original Washitaw Nation had already splintered, with various factions active outside Louisiana. The group came into the spotlight again in July 2016 when Gavin Long, a Missouri man who had shared violent anti-law enforcement beliefs on social media, fatally shot three police officers and wounded three others in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A 2015 Washitaw Nation identification card was found on Long after he was killed in a confrontation with police.
The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors was another major Moorish sovereign organization boasting hundreds of members when its leader Malachi (Dwight) York established a compound in rural Georgia in 1993. The group’s beliefs were an amalgamation of UFO conspiracy theories, biblical teachings, anti-White rhetoric, and sovereign practices, including refusing to recognize the authority of law enforcement. The beginning of the end of York’s empire came when hundreds of law enforcement officials raided the compound in 2002, arresting York on racketeering and child molestation charges.
Various other Moorish sovereign groups remain active across the US, with their followers engaged in real–world activities, such as an Ohio member of the Moorish National Republic filing paperwork with that state’s Supreme Court asserting claim to his “birthright,” and attempting to spread their beliefs online. The Moorish Divine and National Movement, the Moorish National Republic of Peace, and the Moorish American Government all maintain websites and/or Facebook pages.
Tactics/Real World Activity
Moorish sovereigns engage in many of the same anti-government activities as their fellow travelers in the sovereign movement, such as creating their own legal documents, claiming diplomatic immunity, and refusing to recognize the authority of and filing false liens against law enforcement or other government officials. However, these adherents tie their practices back to their alleged heritage by using wording or imagery specific to Moorish culture.
Fake license plates and/or identification cards with images and words specific to their Moorish beliefs are also common. While false license plates bearing legal citations or words such as “American National” are common among sovereigns, Moorish plates often include the words “Indigenous” or “Mu’ur Republic” (Mu’ur is another spelling for Moor) or feature the image or colors of the flag of Morocco, which is red with a five-pointed green star.
In December 2022, two Moorish sovereigns in Maryland claimed diplomatic immunity during court proceedings against them, citing the 1786 treaty between Morocco and America. The pair, charged with gun-related offenses, were part of a sovereign group that took over a gun range in Charles County, Maryland, and declared it protected territory. The group’s leader was previously convicted after attempting to claim a multi-million dollar mansion in Bethesda, Maryland, as part of his sovereign status.
Squatting in foreclosed or even occupied residences are common tactics used by Moorish sovereigns. From Washington State to New Jersey to Georgia and Ohio, sovereign squatters have claimed their alleged status as indigenous people gives them authority to take over residences, some worth millions. Expanding on the generally held sovereign belief that only people, not banks, can own residences or land, Moorish adherents have created fake deeds transferring ownership of the properties, then change the locks.
These tactics have manifested themselves in real world harms, often criminal in nature. In July 2021, 11 members of a paramilitary Moorish sovereign group called the Rise of the Moors were arrested after a hours-long standoff with Massachusetts State Police that shut down a major interstate for hours. The men, some of whom were armed with rifles and pistols, refused to surrender their weapons, or acknowledge government authority over them. The group, displaying the Moroccan flag and proclaiming their status as “American Nationals,” said they were traveling from their headquarters in Rhode Island to Maine for training.
Defendants in criminal cases have also used Moorish sovereign beliefs in apparent efforts to nullify charges against them. Detroit residents Carlos and Eric Powell, who received life sentences in 2014 for running what prosecutors called “one of the largest drug rings in metro Detroit history,” wore fezzes to court during their trials, and claimed MSTA status. The local MSTA temple repudiated them, however, and called their reported affiliations an attempt to influence jurors.
The Washitaw Nation and Moorish Sovereign Citizens: What You Need to Know – Anti-Defamation League
Moorish Sovereign Citizens – Southern Poverty Law Center