A man who had lived in Charlotte about a month was arrested Thursday, accused of trying to recruit domestic terrorists for the Islamic State group and claiming to be planning a secret training camp on U.S. soil.
Erick Jamal Hendricks, 35, used social media networks to contact and recruit Americans for the cause of the Islamic State, also known as IS, ISIS and ISIL, federal authorities said, and he appeared to have ties to a 2015 attack at a Texas event mocking pictures of the prophet Muhammad.
Hendricks was obsessed with security while connecting on social media sites, unbeknownst that he’d been communicating with an FBI undercover operative and others who’d agreed to cooperate with investigators, according to an affidavit by Scott Hare, an FBI counter-terrorism agent.
In a March 2015 meeting in Baltimore with others he believed to be part of his ISIS ring, Hendricks said he had land in Arkansas where he could “get off the grid” and prepare for bloody battle with law enforcement.
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Three months later, Hendricks told the FBI operative that he wanted to construct a training center “hidden in plain sight … Farm, house, garden, tunnels,” Hare said in the affidavit.
In communications with others, he claimed to have 10 operatives in the United States and hoped to raid military depots for weapons, authorities said.
Until being charged Thursday with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, a crime that carries a sentence up to 15 years, Hendricks only had minor traffic infractions on his record.
He appeared at a short hearing Thursday at the federal courthouse in Charlotte. A small group of people who said they knew Hendricks gathered briefly outside but declined to talk to an Observer reporter.
Hendricks grew up in Woodson, Ark., near Little Rock, and until recently had been living in Virginia.
Jibril Hough, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, said Hendricks attended no Islamic centers or mosques in Charlotte.
“He had only been in Charlotte for three weeks,” said Hough, who said he conferred with the FBI about the arrest. “He’s from South Carolina. … Our community has been very vocal in condemning ISIS.”
Hendricks had lived in several cities in northern Virginia and in Columbia, where he lived in an apartment on Sunview Drive as late as 2013 while selling mobile phones and other electronics at iTech Connections.
He was staying in a small house on Bradford Drive in Charlotte’s west side when arrested, records indicate.
Began in Ohio
Hendricks’ case appears to have dovetailed with an arrest in Ohio in June 2015. Federal authorities said that an unidentified man in the Cleveland area tried to buy an AK-47 assault rifle and ammunition from an undercover officer.
He later pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization and two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He had an extensive criminal record including four felony convictions for drug trafficking.
He entered into a plea agreement with the federal government that allowed for a reduced sentence if he cooperated with investigators.
He told the FBI that he had been contacted by Hendricks through social media in the spring of 2015 as a possible IS recruit after pledging allegiance to IS and indicating on social media he would be interested in conducting attacks in the United States.
Hendricks told the man he “needed people” and wanted to meet with him, the federal complaint says.
Hendricks also told the man that there were “brothers” in Texas and Mexico; that he was attempting to “get brothers to meet face to face;” and that he wanted “to get brothers to train together.”
Hendricks tested the man’s religious knowledge and commitment to Islam, asking whether he’d be willing to commit “jihad,” to die as a “martyr” and his desire to enter paradise.
Authorities said the Ohio man took this to mean that Hendricks was seeking recruits for a terrorist attack in the U.S. and to find out if the man was a suitable candidate.
Hendricks also criticized the Ohio man for his involvement in selling marijuana, saying it was an affront to Muslim faith.
On his Facebook page, Hendricks wrote in 2014: “I have not smoked one blunt or dranked one drop of liquar; or had one single, solitary act of sex outside of marriage; or defiled my body with the prohibited meat (meat) in almost 15 years.”
Hendricks had also been talking through social media to someone working undercover for the FBI.
On April 16, 2015, authorities said, Hendricks told the FBI operative to download the document “GPS for the Ghuraba in the U.S.”
Among other instructions, the document encouraged followers to die as martyrs rather than be arrested and jailed. “Boobie trap your homes,” “lay in wait for them” and to “never leave your home without your AK-47 or M16,” the document advised.
Hendricks kept in contact with the FBI operative and at least two other confidential informants on the federal payroll, authorities say. He changed online identities regularly and instructed them on security protocols so they wouldn’t be detected by federal investigators, records said.
At one point, the government said, Hendricks told the FBI operative that he worked full-time as a recruiter and “It’s hard to sift through brothers” and “Allah chooses only the few.”
Attack on contest
On April 23, 2015, authorities said, Hendricks contacted a man named Elton Simpson through social media. Along with Nadir Hamid Soofi, Simpson launched the ISIS-inspired attack on the “First Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” in Garland, Texas, on May 3, 2015.
It followed the January 2015 attack on the French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had run mocking cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Creating depictions of Muhammad is forbidden in Islamic beliefs.
Simpson and Soofi wounded a security guard and were killed by Garland police guarding the event.
Authorities said Hendricks had been in touch with Simpson through social media and urged the FBI’s undercover operative to attend the contest on the day of the attack. Hendricks asked the operative on the day of the attack through social media questions about security:
“How many police/agents?” “Do you see feds there?’ “Do you see snipers?” Hendricks asked through messages.
Hendricks’ next court appearance, a detention hearing, is scheduled for Tuesday in Charlotte before U.S. Magistrate David Cayer.
Maria David, Steve Harrison and Kiana Cole contributed.