Shortly after Justin Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison for planning to commit mass murder in support of the Islamic State, U.S. Attorney Jill Rose of Charlotte confirmed that investigations of other suspected ISIS sympathizers continue in North Carolina.
A domestic-terrorism expert told the Observer this week that the North Carolina probes are among some 1,000 active FBI investigations into ISIS-related threats encompassing all 50 states.
One case involves a 29-year-old Waxhaw man accused of lying to the FBI when he denied he told someone he planned to fly to Syria to fight with ISIS while helping others get there to do the same, according to a bill of indictment unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Charlotte.
Alexander Samuel Smith is accused of meeting with someone in Matthews in 2014 whom he thought was an ISIS representative but who was really an FBI confidential source, the indictment said. He offered lower-fare “buddy passes” he said he could get from his girlfriend, who worked at a U.S. airline at the time, court documents show. Smith is charged with two counts of making a false statement to an agency of the United States, according to the indictment.
Keri Farley, the FBI’s assistant special agent in charge of North Carolina, said Sullivan’s arrest saved lives. But she added that “homegrown violent extremists” are becoming harder to stop.
“Identifying a terrorist before an attack happens is one of the most difficult challenges we face,” Farley said during a press conference with Rose after Sullivan’s sentencing. “It’s harder than finding a needle in a haystack; it’s like finding a needle in a stack of needles. But that’s exactly what happened in this case.”
Sullivan still faces a capital murder trial in Burke County in connection with the December 2014 shooting death of John Bailey Clark, an elderly recluse who lived near Sullivan’s parents in Morganton. Newly unsealed photographs from the crime scene show a path of blood leading from the bedroom of Clark’s dilapidated home on Rose Carswell Road and the shallow grave next to the house where his body was found.
According to federal documents, investigators say that after his arrest, Sullivan told a fellow jail inmate that he had killed his 74-year-old neighbor “for practice.”
Prosecutors say Sullivan hoped to kill at a far greater scale. With the help of his home computer and a Casio smartphone, Sullivan plotted directly with Junaid Hussain, a prominent ISIS leader, recruiter and social media expert who was killed during an August 2016 airstrike in Syria. Their goal: to kill up to hundreds of people at a concert or club in North Carolina or Virginia while filming the carnage as an ISIS propaganda tool.
Before sentencing Sullivan, U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger said the planned massacre was similar to the 2016 attack in Orlando, Fla., where a lone gunman killed 49 people.
Sullivan is among the 126 people arrested in the United States over the last three years for ISIS-related acts or conspiracies, according to the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. As with Sullivan, 90 percent of those charged have been male. The average age is 27. Some 45 percent were arrested as they attempted to join ISIS fighters overseas. About 30 percent have been accused of plotting to carry out attacks on U.S. soil.
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the extremism program, says nearly nine out of 10 of those arrested are either Americans or permanent legal residents. None of these defendants likely would have been affected by the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban, which has been resurrected by the Supreme Court and temporarily bars most residents of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the country.
Hughes says while the travel ban has drawn more public debate, the “vast, vast majority” of domestic terrorism cases raises the question of “What is the major threat?”
“Based on the numbers, we should be looking at home-grown terrorists, not necessarily individuals coming from the outside in. Sullivan is typical. He was born and raised here,” he said.
Court documents say the Carolinas have other alleged domestic ties to ISIS.
▪ In May, unsealed court documents revealed that a Clemson graduate, FBI linguist and translator Daniela Greene, was arrested in August 2014 after she married the ISIS operative she was supposed to be monitoring. Greene traveled to Syria in June 2014 to wed Denis “Deso Dogg” Cuspert and join ISIS. She fled to the United States a few weeks later. She was released in August 2016 after serving two years in prison.
▪ Zakaryia Abdin, a South Carolina teenager, could go to trial as early as this fall for plotting to join ISIS in the Middle East and also threatening to launch a domestic massacre similar to Orlando’s. Two years ago, when he was 16 and a high school student in York County, Abdin and another suspect were charged with plotting to rob a gun store in North Carolina for an attack on troops at a military base near Raleigh. He has pleaded not guilty in the current case.
▪ Charlotte resident Erick Jamal Hendricks remains jailed in Cleveland, Ohio, accused of trying to recruit, train and then unleash a cell of domestic terrorists fighting for ISIS. He is tentatively scheduled for trial next year. Hendricks was arrested in Charlotte in August. In a letter sent to the Observer through his mother, Hendricks said he was a longtime counter-terrorism informant for the FBI.
Sullivan’s sentencing received a significant amount of attention from federal law enforcement. An unusually large number of FBI agents were on hand in the courtroom. Afterward, Dana Boente, the acting assistant U.S. attorney general for National Security, issued a statement.
“Counter-terrorism remains our highest priority, and we will continue to identify and hold accountable those who seek to commit acts of terrorism within our borders,” Boente said.
Rose and Farley would not discuss details of any active ISIS investigations in North Carolina. But Rose said Sullivan’s sentencing means that “there is one less threat out there to kill innocent people in behalf of the Islamic State.”
Farley asked for the public’s help in heading off domestic terrorism. “Trust your gut. Err on the side of caution. … No piece of information is too small,” she said.
Law enforcement officers first learned of Sullivan from a 911 call made by his father, Richie Sullivan, in April 2015 when his son began destroying Buddhas and other religious statues in the family’s home. When questioned shortly after Clark’s death, Richie Sullivan said he and his wife, Eleanor, were out of town on the night of the killing, failing to mention that his son was alone in the family home at the time.
Interviewed after his son’s June 2015 arrest, Richie Sullivan said his son began acting combatively after he converted to Islam in September 2014. He began referring to his parents and other Americans as “you people,” according to FBI notes made public this week. After showing no interest in guns at any time in his life, the teenager announced on several occasions that he wanted to buy an assault rifle. At one point, Richie Sullivan suspected his son was building a pipe bomb, the FBI document says.
By now, Sullivan had been downloading ISIS execution videos. According to transcripts of his online conversations with an FBI undercover agent, Sullivan seethed at U.S. military reprisals against ISIS in Syria and elsewhere.
Richie Sullivan says he pressed his son to get a job and asked at one point if Justin had considered the military. According to the new document, his son replied, “And what, kill more of us?”
Joe Marusak contributed