He has warned that the international monetary system is about to collapse and that five billion people will die in the ensuing chaos. The Royal Family and MI6 are, he claims, responsible for the international drugs trade. Welcome to the weird world of Lyndon LaRouche, the 81-year-old who is campaigning as an "independent Democratic candidate" for president of the United States in this November's election, for the fifth time. A millionaire who describes himself as "the world's leading economic forecaster", LaRouche is also a convicted fraudster and conspiracy theorist par excellence.
Until recently, LaRouche was virtually unknown in Britain, while in the United States he is dismissed as a crackpot, ignored by both the media and the political world. But since the death just over a year ago of the British student Jeremiah Duggan, a 22-year-old Jew found dead in mysterious circumstances in Germany after becoming involved with LaRouche supporters, his organisation has come under closer scrutiny than it has for decades.
Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, a US think tank that monitors right-wing groups, said: "In America we have treated him as a fringe eccentric, which is wrong because the truth is he recruits a lot of talented young people, like Jeremiah Duggan, and attempts to turn them into followers who will mindlessly celebrate a cause that's going nowhere."
Duggan, who was studying in Paris, was killed by traffic when he stumbled on to a dual carriageway outside Wiesbaden, apparently fleeing from unknown dangers. Just minutes earlier he had made distressed telephone calls to his mother and girlfriend. The previous weekend he had attended what he had believed to be an anti-Iraq war meeting but which in reality was a conference organised by LaRouche largely to promote his views. His family are pressing the German authorities to reconsider their verdict of suicide.
Others also believe the LaRouche organisation is a subject for considerable concern. Dr William Dolman, the coroner who conducted the inquest into Duggan's death, said the case left "many unanswered questions", while a Scotland Yard internal report said the organisation appeared to be "a political cult with sinister and dangerous connections", which blamed Jewish people for the Iraq war and other problems.
LaRouche has taken the same line in response to any external criticism throughout his career - condemning it as part of a long history of conspiracy against him, largely contrived by MI6, the CIA and the KGB. The Duggan case was, therefore, a hoax contrived by "admirers of Dick Cheney and Tony Blair" while a story in The Independent on Mr Duggan's parents campaigning to raise awareness of political cults was a "smear".
It's typical of a style he has been honing since he was a Marxist living in Greenwich village in the early 1970s, when he founded the National Caucus of Labour Committees out of the radical student politics of the era. But traditional left-winger he was not: it has been claimed his supporters physically attacked members of other Marxist groups in order to maintain dominance of the left, while his speeches began to adopt the style of a demagogue. He later began contacts with some right-wing groups, telling his supporters it was a tactical alliance to oppose imperialism.
LaRouche then performed a complete about-turn, declaring war on leftists and liberals. He began to develop his conspiracy theories, including assertions that Britain was responsible for the French revolution and that the 11 September attacks were planned by extremist elements in the US military in conjunction with Jewish conspirators in order to start a war on Islam. He has also stated that his lapsed supporters have been brainwashed by the KGB and British intelligence using methods developed by the Tavistock Institute in London, a respected family therapy centre.
Berlet says: "The LaRouche network combines totalitarian forms of social control, fascist political ideology and dualistic apocalyptic style, which encourages followers to fear that time is running out and they must act immediately to stave off some cataclysmic event."
LaRouche grew rich in the 1970s and 1980s through a company that developed computer software for the haulage industry, and expanded his political organisation during that time. It now operates in at least half a dozen countries and has funded four attempts at the US presidency, although never gathering more than 80,000 votes.
The tycoon now lives in what Berlet describes as a "surreal world of self-aggrandisement", delivering his message to grandly titled meetings organised almost entirely by his own supporters, many of whom have been part of his inner circle for years. He is believed to run at least a dozen publications and political parties around the world, but his biggest operation outside the US is in Germany, and is run by his German-born wife, Helga Zepp-LaRouche, a former freelance journalist. According to some reports, an earlier version of their German political party, the EAP, was decreed by the German government to be the equivalent of a "political sect"; it is now called the Buergerrechtsbewegung Solidaritaet, or the Civil Rights Solidarity Movement.
In Wiesbaden, Mrs LaRouche runs the Schiller Institute - named after German poet Friedrich Schiller. The institute purports to be a cultural forum and publishes a glossy magazine, Fidelio. But amid reviews and articles on Homer or Brahms, the LaRouche world view is expounded.
LaRouche's high point of political achievement came in the early 1980s when some of his advisors were consulted by the Reagan-era White House over the "Star Wars" missile defence system, a concept which LaRouche claims as his own. The contacts were severed on the advice of Henry Kissinger. The low came in 1989 when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for mail fraud conspiracy and tax evasion, due to his followers raising funds from gullible investors and donors, including elderly people, using illegal methods.
Since his release from prison in 1994, LaRouche's outward political activities have changed tack again. As well as criticising the "neo-cons" at the White House, he has developed ties with Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam and cultivated black civil rights leaders. He has become an enthusiastic user of the internet.
While LaRouche himself is surrounded by long-term acolytes and low-level politicians seduced by offers of support, it is his LaRouche Youth Movement that most worries observers. In an address last year he declared: "Give me 1,000 youth leaders like these, and I'll take over the country."
Despite being ejected from some campuses, members of the movement hover around colleges and universities, seeking donations and selling his publications. Any interest will lead to an invitation to a meeting or discussion and, once brought inside the group, they are then, according to former members, subjected to emotional and psychological manipulation to bind them in.
"It's a carnival huckster act - very theatrical, with lots of 'quick, here's news just in...' kind of stuff designed to wear you down," says Berlet, adding: "They play on your guilt, tell you the world is about to explode and that LaRouche is the only person who understands what is going on." Some, like Jeremiah Duggan, try to break away; others succumb.
LaRouche cadre members leave their homes to live communally in shared houses or flats. Some study European languages - to help when they are recruiting in France or Italy - and German composers, such as Beethoven and Wagner. The others spend their time fund-raising and studying LaRouche's writings.
Many give up good careers. John Martinson, a writer from Wisconsin, described how, three years ago, his brother Peter, 28, gave up a masters degree in astrophysics to join a LaRouche group, and now lives in a shared house with other supporters. John said: "We used to be as close as you could be, but now he won't really talk to me or other members of the family and he is difficult to contact. When we do get to talk to him, all he does is try and convert us, which is when he acts like a missionary and comes out with all this conspiracy stuff. He's very suspicious of other people now. Our parents are very concerned and scared; he's almost destroyed our family."
LaRouche does not operate in Britain, but a number of British people are members of his organisation. The Independent has spoken to one woman, living in the south-west of England, whose son is a member in the United States. Some details have been changed to protect her identity.
Her son, David, who has worked in the finance industry on the East Coast for several years, became involved in the organisation after buying one of its publications in the street. She said: "David has changed. He has become withdrawn. He sent me a lot of material they put out. On the surface it all seems very humanitarian and intellectual, but there is this very nasty, anti-Semitic thing underneath. And David believes everything they say. He split up with his girlfriend shortly after he met them - she was Jewish. He said he wanted someone who could understand how he felt. I'm desperately worried about him and his mental state if we don't get him out as soon as possible."
Finding former members willing to speak is difficult because, as Berlet says, "the LaRouchies are very aggressive in targeting their critics". Aglaja Beyes-Corleis, a German woman who was a member for 16 years, told the BBC earlier this year: "Jewish members were put under special pressure. For instance, a person was picked out and attacked at a public meeting. They were told: 'Your mother visited Israel'. I mean, why shouldn't any mother visit Israel?"
Linda Ray, a Jewish former member in Chicago, has described how she once sold a LaRouche pamphlet in which a Star of David symbol was used as a centrepiece to point to six different aspects of the illegal drug trade. She said: "Many find it difficult to understand how Jews, such as myself, could have worked for an anti-Semitic group. Perhaps the answer is that the members get so hypnotised by the simplistic 'good guys and bad guys' approach to history that they do not hear what LaRouche is really saying."
Some believe Jeremiah Duggan was accused of being an infiltrator, such is the group's paranoia about outsiders.
Earlier this summer, LaRouche accused Cheney of working with "a crowd of scoundrels" at Number 10 to run a dirty tricks operation against him through the British press in time for the Democratic convention. Meanwhile, he campaigns under the Democratic ticket in the United States, attracting federal funding for every campaign contribution he obtains, and will be on the ballot paper in more than 30 states. His latest theory is that the resurgence of something called Synarchist International - which he says helped former Nazis enter western intelligence networks - was responsible for the Madrid train bombing. Says Berlet: "People in the US just tend to ignore him, but they do so at their peril. He is running a totalitarian group, a political cult."