Two years after his parents moved here hoping to give him a fresh start, Justin Sullivan finally began making new friends.
He did not meet them at school or the mall or in nearby towns. Rather, according to federal documents, their paths intersected in the fall of 2014 on his computer, within the guarded online chat rooms on what has become known as the Dark Web.
There, with the urging of recruiters for perhaps the world’s most feared terrorist group, the shy, socially awkward youth his neighbors rarely saw underwent a profound transformation, documents say.
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Behind the closed door of his bedroom and bathed in the light of his laptop, Sullivan became “The Mujahid,” a soldier in the worldwide holy war declared by the Islamic State. It also was his online ID, prosecutors say.
In time, Sullivan, the American-born son of a Marine, became a Muslim and began conspiring with Islamic State operatives in Syria to launch his own jihad, targeting his parents and potentially dozens of others in a series of small-town attacks, documents say.
Today, the 20-year-old remains jailed in Asheville, awaiting sentencing from a federal judge. Late last year, Sullivan pleaded guilty to plotting to attack a club or concert in support of the Islamic State, the terrorist group better known as ISIS or ISIL. The plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte carries a recommended life sentence.
Sullivan also faces a state murder charge – and a potential death penalty – in connection with the Dec. 17, 2014, shooting death of John Bailey Clark, a 74-year-old disabled neighbor who lived about 350 yards down Rose Carswell Road from Sullivan and his parents. Sullivan has pleaded not guilty to the charge, and a trial has not been scheduled.
The Burke County murder indictment came in February 2016, more than eight months after Sullivan’s original arrest. According to documents, Sullivan bragged to a fellow jail inmate that he thought he could get away with the killing because Clark “was nobody ... was nothing.”
Victoria Jayne of Hickory, Sullivan’s defense attorney in the Burke County murder case, describes her client as smart, polite and mild-mannered. But she adds that for years he has been beset by depression and other emotional problems. With Sullivan’s life on the line, Jayne believes the publicity surrounding his ties to ISIS seriously jeopardizes his chances of finding an impartial jury.
“Can he get a fair trial in Burke County?” Jayne asks. “Can he get a fair trial anywhere in North Carolina?”
According to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, 114 people have been arrested in America on ISIS-related charges since March 2014. And while the world awaits President Trump’s revamped immigration ban that he says is designed to stop the flow of potential terrorists into the country, the FBI says it already has active ISIS-related investigations underway in all 50 states.
Sullivan appears to have been an early example of worldwide ISIS offensive: The group uses the web to identify lonely and isolated teenagers in Western countries then slowly grooms them to do violence in their homelands.
“The amount of Islamic State videos and propaganda aimed at children has really jumped in recent months,” Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies, told the New York Times. “We haven’t seen anything quite like this, not on this scale.”
The ISIS defendants arrested in this country were as young as 15. The largest single age group for the accused U.S. terrorists is 18 to 20.
Mubin Shaikh, a former recruiter for an extremist Islamist group and now a security consultant who works with the U.S. government, says American converts to the ISIS cause are particularly prized.
“The (online) market is saturated with the ISIS brand. There’s a base that’s already been laid down,” he told the Observer. “It’s like setting a fly trap. Then you wait to see what flies come along.”
At first, in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Mich., Justin appeared to be a happy and successful student, Jayne says. But starting in the fifth grade, he became so averse to school that he began bolting into the nearest woods to avoid classes. His Filipino mother, Eleanor, suspects he had been bullied, his lawyer says. (Sullivan’s parents refused multiple requests from the Observer to talk about their son.)
Jayne believes her client has been depressed and potentially suicidal from an early stage, conditions that she says have largely gone untreated. Experts say personal trauma often serves as a trigger for future radicalization.
In Delaware, Sullivan apparently was suspended from Lake Forest High School and told he could not return. Worried that their 16-year-old son had been typecast, Rich and Eleanor picked up again in 2012 and moved into a ranch home on quiet Rose Carswell Road in Morganton. According to Jayne, Justin felt more isolated than ever.
“Morganton is a nice place unless you’re a half-Asian kid in high school,” she says.
He eventually dropped out of Patton High, then stayed enrolled only for a few weeks at a private school in the Philippines. He returned home, but neighbors rarely saw him.
“He is a child that you couldn’t communicate with,” says Don Denton, the family’s next-door neighbor. “His parents? You couldn’t paint better neighbors. But Justin was always inside.”
Experts say Sullivan’s isolation and struggles in the outside world made him an ideal target for terrorist recruiters.
Anthropologist Scott Atran, an expert in the techniques of exporting terrorism, says ISIS recruiters use the web and social media to cull out those “among our enemies who have grievances and frustrated personal aspirations.” Then they gradually tie those resentments to the group’s terrorist agenda while creating the capacity for violence, he says.
In the fall of 2014 when he was 18, Sullivan converted to Islam and began downloading pro-ISIS speeches and videos, including some that showed beheadings and other atrocities, documents say. He also kept tabs on the group’s military activities in Syria and Iraq.
In one of the downloads that the FBI says it found on Sullivan’s laptop, a video opens with a Jordanian pilot trapped in a cage, surrounded by his masked and armed ISIS captors.
A trail of gasoline is lit. An ISIS rally song, “Qariban Qariba (Soon, Soon),” rises in the background as the flames race forward, and the pilot begins to burn.
“Unto you we will come, with beheading and death,” the Arabic voices sing more loudly as the Jordanian is consumed by flames.
ISIS, the singers promise, will destroy its enemies from within using the “specters of the night” and “the youth of terror.”
On the night of Dec. 17, three months after his religious conversion and with his parents on a weekend trip, Sullivan pulled on a ski mask and walked a quarter mile through the darkness to the home of John Bailey Clark, prosecutors say. There, he picked a door lock and slipped inside.
After making his way to Clark’s bedroom, Sullivan put the .22-caliber rifle he’d stolen from his father’s gun cabinet a few inches from the head of his sleeping neighbor, then pulled the trigger three times, documents say. The next day, a trail of blood led investigators to the 20-inch-deep grave scratched out besides the house that held Clark’s naked body.
Sullivan hid the rifle, ski mask and lock-picking set in the crawl space of his parents’ home, documents say.
Months later, he would tell a fellow jail inmate that he shot Clark as “practice” for the planned killing of his father. Rich Sullivan’s death was to be payback, documents say, for making a pivotal 911 phone call in 2015.
‘Foreign and domestic’
Rich Sullivan, a retired Marine captain, flies an American flag each day outside of his Morganton home. Starting in 2014, documents say, he became more and more worried about his son.
He told the Morganton News Herald that Justin had developed an eerie fascination with ISIS, particularly the ease in which the group recruited and spread its message around the globe.
Rich Sullivan felt a responsibility to alert authorities. “When you take a (military) oath, it’s to defend against enemies foreign and domestic,” he said. “I just didn’t know it would be so close to home.”
Three days after Clark’s killing, documents say, Rich Sullivan did not tell a state investigator canvassing the neighborhood about the shooting that Justin had been alone in the house the night of the crime. Four months later, in April 2015, however, Sullivan called 911 to report his son’s behavior.
“I don’t know if it is ISIS or what, but he is destroying Buddhas and figurines and stuff,” the father said, according to documents. “I mean, we are scared to leave the house.”
Justin Sullivan can be heard in the background, repeatedly asking, “Why are you trying to say I am a terrorist? ... They are not going to put me in jail. They are going to kill me.”
Burke County deputies came to the house that night to defuse the confrontation. But Justin Sullivan was no longer quite so alone.
Soon, he was being watched online by the FBI.
‘The war is here’
Neighbors were also noticing. Denton recalls a 2015 incident in which his young neighbor hung pie plates from tree limbs in his backyard. Justin Sullivan scampered from plate to plate, firing a BB pistol at the aluminum targets, Denton says, appearing as if he were training for something.
It’s unclear when Sullivan arrived at his plan to launch “The Islamic State of North America,” and bring jihad, a holy war, to the foothills of North Carolina.
At some point in 2015, the FBI says Sullivan shared his plot with ISIS operatives, including the late Junaid Hussain.
Hussain was among the Islamic State’s top recruiters and propagandists who tried to inspire attacks by converts in their home countries. According to documents, he also offered technical assistance, including how to make a bomb. Hussain described it as “cake baking.”
Prosecutors say Sullivan was in regular contact with Hussain and others ISIS members in the days leading up to his planned June 2015 attacks. Unlike other sympathizers, Sullivan had no plans to leave his homeland and join the fight in the Middle East, documents say
“The war is here, ahki (my brother),” he wrote to another would-be convert whom he met online in early June 2015. “Help me take my vengeance.”
The man he was recruiting, though, worked for the FBI.
As they traded emails, the undercover agent posed a fundamental question.
“Can you kill?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sullivan wrote back.
“You seem strong in your convictions.”
“I am,” Sullivan replied.
The teenager wanted his new colleague to prove his own loyalty. “Just kill a few people so I know that you are truthful,” he wrote, according to documents.
The undercover agent responded that he was afraid of being captured or killed.
“People kill people all the time and get away with it,” Sullivan replied, before drawing on what prosecutors say was personal experience. “Just shoot then leave ... wear a mask and do it at night.”
‘A clean kill’
On June 18, Sullivan visited Hawkeye Firearms, a Morganton gun shop. He wanted .223 hollow point ammunition, but store owner Pat Stringer did not have the shells in stock. Stringer told the Observer he remembers the encounter but, citing the ongoing court cases, would not discuss it.
Charlotte gun dealer Larry Hyatt says hollow points, about $1 a piece, are too expensive for anything but hunting. The rounds “mushroom” on impact, causing more damage to the target.
“Hunters don’t want a wounded animal,” Hyatt says. “You want a clean kill.”
Sullivan was on a tight deadline. He told the undercover FBI agent that he planned to kill up to 50 people either Sunday or Monday, June 21-22. But he still didn’t have a rifle. Sullivan hoped to buy an AR-16 that Saturday at a Hickory gun show, documents say, and he had already printed a $1 off admission coupon to get in. He withdrew almost $700 from his savings for the weapon.
He kept his ISIS handlers apprised.
“Very soon carrying out 1st operation of Islamic State in North America,” Sullivan wrote to Hussain on June 19, in one of a series of texts the FBI says it found in the deleted file of Sullivan’s phone.
“Can you make a video first?” Hussain responded, referring to footage suicide attackers often leave behind.
Sullivan, however, did not intend to die.
“It’s not an inghimasi (suicide) operation,” he wrote. “For major attack, we will film, not this.”
Shaikh, the former recruiter for Islamist extremists, says Sullivan’s grandiose plans indicate significant naivete. “But just because they are immature does not mean they are not dangerous,” he added.
Jail, chess and new friends
With the gun show a day away, Sullivan still had last details to tie off at home.
A homemade silencer sent by the FBI, which Sullivan had requested from the undercover agent, arrived at his parents’ house on June 19, documents say. Eleanor Sullivan got to the package first and opened it. Now, she and Rich demanded an explanation, documents say, and Rich again called 911, saying his son had become “aggressive.”
Sullivan went back online to contact the FBI agent, documents says. He wanted his parents killed, and quickly.
“(I) can’t have people calling the police on me,” he said in an email included in court filings.
The FBI rushed to Rose Carswell Road that night. When agents appeared at the home, documents say, Sullivan began deleting the text conversations with Hussain and the undercover agent.
Three days later, Sullivan, now an accused ISIS terrorist, walked into a federal courtroom in uptown Charlotte for the first time. Handcuffed and shackled, he instinctively turned toward several short wooden rows of seats and locked eyes with his mother and father. For the next 15 minutes, Eleanor and Rich Sullivan held hands as a federal judge read aloud the details of the charges against their son.
Sullivan pleaded guilty on Nov. 29 to one count of attempting to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries. Beneath Sullivan’s name, the court documents also include his alias: The Mujahid.
“Justin Sullivan planned to kill hundreds of innocent people,” John Strong, who heads FBI operations in North Carolina, said after the plea. “He pledged his support to ISIL and took calculated steps to commit a murderous rampage to prove his allegiance.”
Sullivan remains jailed in a kind of legal limbo. Neither his federal sentencing hearing nor his state murder trial has been scheduled.
Oddly, Jayne says, incarceration appears to be serving as a belated form of socialization for her client. His parents visit him regularly. Sullivan plays chess and watches TV with the younger inmates. Jayne says he appears to be actually making friends.
“Jail has been the most positive group setting for him since he was a little boy,” Jayne says. “Isn’t that bizarre?” Researcher Maria David contributed