President Barack Obama plans to launch a military operation this summer that will see the special forces which killed Osama bin Laden team up with Walmart to take over Texas.
The invasion will also target the Mormon stronghold of Utah and an “insurgent pocket” in California. But the main thrust will be in Texas where 1,200 special forces — Army Green Beret forces to Navy Seals — will try to reclaim the state that voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
As the US focuses on the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), anti-Obama groups have been fanning the flames of conspiracy over Jade Helm 15, a long-planned military exercise to let troops “practise core special warfare tasks, which help protect the nation against foreign enemies”.
Mr Obama is no stranger to conspiracy theories — for instance, Donald Trump claiming that he was not born in the US and so not qualified to occupy the White House.
The former “Republic of Texas” has also had one of the strongest streaks of independence in the US since it was annexed in 1845, making the “Lone Star” state ripe for conspiracy tales involving the federal government.
But the latest intrigue took on a new dimension when Greg Abbott, the new Republican governor of Texas, ordered the State Guard, a branch of the Texas state military, to monitor Jade Helm on the grounds that it was “important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed”.
Ted Cruz, the Texas senator running for president, said while he was not concerned about Jade Helm, the anxiety was valid because “we have seen, for six years, a federal government disrespecting the liberty of the citizens”.
But Mr Abbott’s move sparked criticism from mainstream Republicans and people surprised that he would lend credence to rumours.
In his inauguration speech, Mr Abbott had thanked the military, including his brother who served in the Navy, for service that “secured our freedom to celebrate events of democracy like this today”.
His order to the State Guard came days before two men with suspected Isis links were killed by police after they opened fire outside a provocative anti-Muslim exhibition in Garland, Texas.
Although just a wild rumour, the Jade Helm conspiracy has tapped into a debate about the relationship between the federal government and the states that is expected to be a central topic in the 2016 presidential election.
On issues from healthcare to same-sex marriage, many conservatives worry that another Democrat in the Oval Office would push policies that would strip power away from the states.
Mr Abbot’s order provided rich fodder for satirists. Comedian Jon Stewart ripped into the governor, saying, “So Texas, it appears you are on the verge of being taken over by Isis or the United States of America . . . What would Rick Perry do?”
But Mr Perry, the former Texas governor and 2012 presidential candidate who was lampooned after he could not recall the government agency he wanted to eliminate in a presidential debate, also joined the critics.
“The civilian leadership you can always question them but not the men and women in uniform,” Mr Perry said.
James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said Mr Abbot was engaging in “a balancing act between the more establishment wing of the party and the more extreme wing” in a state where high support for the military meets strong distrust of Washington.
Mr Henson said the governor was trying to pass some laws — including one to improve pre-kindergarten education — that were unpopular with extreme rightwing Republicans and the Jade Helm move was an attempt to keep critics on side, even if it was risky given the very strong support for soldiers in Texas.
“If the New York Times and Jon Stewart make fun of you in the national press, all the better in terms of . . . trying to keep his conservative coalition intact at the state level,” Mr Henson said.
Mr Abbott has tried to repair some of the damage, saying the criticism was an “overreaction” to an effort to gather information to share with Texans.
The conspiracy was originally spread by groups such as Infowars.com, a website that has published articles with headlines such as “Texas Judge Warns Obama May Spark ‘Civil War’, Call in UN Troops”.
It was sparked by a leaked military presentation on the exercise that included a map showing Texas and Utah as “hostile” territory and New Mexico as “leaning hostile”.
When Walmart announced the closure of several stores, including in Texas, conspiracy theorists warned that the company was allowing the Pentagon to build tunnels under the vacant properties for use in the summer invasion.