Washington (AFP) - A mysterious internet presence who goes by a single letter, Q, has launched a pro-Trump movement that is suddenly gaining traction, bringing conspiracy theories off the dark web and towards the mainstream.
Last October, the anonymous figure, who supposedly holds top-secret Q-level government clearance, began posting cryptic messages detailing efforts to expose and crush a corrupt global cabal they believe is trying to rule the world.
In the months since, few Americans -- aside from online denizens eager to dive down rabbit holes -- had heard of Q or QAnon, with the secretive message stream remaining on the fringes of the internet.
But the movement burst into the real world this week on one of the largest political stages imaginable, when several attendees at President Donald Trump's rally in Tampa, Florida wore QAnon shirts and waved "We Are Q" signs.
So just who is Q?
Followers are convinced they are receiving top-level intelligence from a mole in Trump's inner circle, an unidentified online message board user with extraordinary access to power who began dispensing intel drops, known as "bread crumbs," to advise Americans of a fantastical plan.
The United States, so it goes, has been run for decades by a nefarious criminal syndicate involving the Clintons, the Obamas, the Rothschilds and financier George Soros, Hollywood types, and other global elites.
There are accusations of child kidnapping and pedophilia rings similar to those at the heart of "Pizzagate," the discredited conspiracy that the hacked email of Hillary Clinton's staffers revealed a human trafficking ring.
QAnon's most outlandish premise seeks to spin Trump's biggest headache into good news, by insisting the US leader has only pretended to collude with Russia in order to get special counsel Robert Mueller to work with him to expose the evil-doers.
The nation should prepare, Q writes, for a Trump-led counter-coup of sorts, an imminent "storm" including arrests that will bring down the cabal and restore power back to the American people.
- 'Calm before the storm' -
Q's messages are part poem, cryptic instruction manual, disruption machine and inspiration.
"Was HRC next in line? Was the election supposed to be rigged? Did good people prevent the rigging?" Q wrote in an early message, referring to Hillary Clinton.
"Do you believe in coincidences? Paint the picture. Crumbs will make bread. Operations underway."
In an era of swirling political polarization and 24-7 online theorizing, when Trump himself peddled the wild falsehood that Barack Obama might not have been born in America, QAnon has gained a foothold.
"I think what Q is is people exposing the truth," Mark Emmett, wearing a QAnon shirt, told The Washington Post at Trump's rally on Thursday in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
"Trump is just showing the way."
Followers believe Trump fanned the flames in October when, during a photo op with military veterans, he cryptically warned reporters of "the calm before the storm."
Some prominent Trump supporters have latched on.
Actress Roseanne Barr has tweeted about QAnon, and Infowars founder Alex Jones has discussed the community.
The messages, often written in staccato style, outline a potpourri of conspiracies: the survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting were actors; 9/11 was an inside job; and "deep state" agents tried to shoot down Air Force One.
Q's writings, which were first posted in 4chan and 8chan -- online messaging boards and incubators of political extremism -- and then were posted to Reddit, Twitter and YouTube, which have far wider audiences.
- 'Dangerous phenomenon' -
Experts warn there are real-life dangers, as exhibited in June when a man in an armored vehicle was arrested near the Hoover Dam in Nevada, brandishing a gun and referring to QAnon.
"This has got all the elements of what would maybe be an uprising, or advocating for violence, or nudging people towards it, or even political upheaval," Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent, told MSNBC.
"So I think it's a really dangerous phenomenon, especially when you see it tied to the president and his rallies."
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Wednesday denied Trump was operating in tandem with QAnon, saying: "The president condemns and denounces any group that would incite violence against another individual."
QAnon supporters nonetheless rejoiced online, saying the mere mention in that briefing was an affirmation of Q's legitimacy.
Diehards are convinced Trump is dropping hints that validate the theories.
In Tampa, he mentioned he had been to Washington about "17 times" before the election. He has blasted the "17 angry Democrats" running the probe into Russia's election meddling.
Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet.