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Berkeley County, SC, councilman paid to dress up as 'terrorist' for training exercise

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Berkeley County Councilman Tommy Newell (far left) posted a photo on Facebook of himself wearing traditional Middle Eastern clothes. He said he was paid to be an actor for a private company's military training exercise. He couldn't identify the other individuals in the photo. Provided/Tommy Newell 

A Berkeley County Council member said he wasn't trying to offend anyone by dressing up like a Middle Eastern man and then posting a picture on social media, saying the robed costume was part of a paid acting job for a tactical training exercise.

The Facebook post solicited outrage on social media and questions from the public before being made private.

Six-year Councilman Tommy Newell posted the photo of himself wearing a traditional Middle Eastern keffiyeh headscarf and tunic and explaining he was "playing the part of a terrorist" for an organization's military-style training. 

Next to him were four other people in foreign dress, one wearing a keffiyeh, one wearing a niqab (face veil) and cloak, one wearing a kufi skullcap and one dressed in all gray military fatigues and holding an enlarged cutout of a handgun.

"I had the absolute honor of playing a terrorist (Sheik of Berkeley County)," Newell said in his Facebook post.

He praised the other individuals who participated in the exercise by saying "these men and woman (sic) are the reason this country is feared and loved by other countries!"

Newell told The Post and Courier he was “hired by a private company to play a role as an actor” for a tactical training exercise, but declined to identify the contractor. He said the clothes were provided.

He has since removed the Facebook post from public view. 

Hannah Moldenhauer, a spokeswoman for Berkeley County, declined to comment on the picture.

Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League's Southern Division, said Newell's post portrays an inaccurate message about Muslim Americans to the public.

"The council member’s decision to publicize his role-play as an Islamic extremist serves no legitimate purpose and only serves to breed stereotypes about Muslim Americans and fan Islamophobia," Padilla-Goodman said.

"At a time of such intense global anxiety, now more than ever, our leaders should be working to unify communities and stand up to hatred," she said.

The Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in Washington, has dealt with issues of organizations and military groups profiling Middle Eastern culture in training before, a spokesman said. 

Ibrahim Hooper, the group's spokesman, said these training exercises have larger repercussions. 

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"When you get this kind of stereotyping that links normal attire — Middle Eastern or Islamic — to terrorism, it has a very real and powerful impact on Muslim Americans who wear this attire in public,” Hooper said. “We will be following up on this issue.”

Newell's post is the latest in a string of public racial critiques of government officials in Berkeley County.

Last week, a Moncks Corner councilman resigned after posting a racist image on Facebook depicting former presidential candidate and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in blackface.

Last month, a former Moncks Corner police officer sued Police Chief Rick Ollic claiming he used slurs against her, discriminated against her and ultimately forced her out because of her race and gender.

There are nearly 800 defense contractors in the Palmetto State, according to a report from the South Carolina Military Base Task Force. 

There are hundreds of contractors in the Charleston area alone and they are a major employers in the region.

Newell's colleague on Berkeley County Council, Brandon Cox owns and operates a company that contracts with the government. The councilman, an Air Force veteran, is the president and CEO of Threat Management Group, a tactical training firm based in North Charleston.

The organization "has been supporting Counter Terrorist Operations around the globe" and is staffed with "elite military and law enforcement professionals," according to the company's LinkedIn page.

When asked if Newell was hired by Cox's company to act the part, Cox said he could not discuss the matter due to "a non-disclosure agreement with a client" and national security concerns.

Cox said role playing is a key element in tactical exercises.

“This is a very common practice for military training exercises,” Cox said. “As paid actors, they are playing the part of the region where the unit is going. If they were deploying to Antarctica in the exercise, then there would be actors dressed as people from Antarctica.”

Military contracting plays a major role in the South Carolina economy. A Post and Courier analysis of five years' worth of the most recent spending data from the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment shows $13.1 billion worth of Department of Defense contracts were performed or awarded in the state. 

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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