Crime & Courts

In Charlotte terrorism case, unlike Orlando, somebody picked up the phone

Makeshift memorials in Orlando, Fla., continue to grow in the aftermath of the weekend massacre at a nightclub by a lone gunman. At least 50 people died
Makeshift memorials in Orlando, Fla., continue to grow in the aftermath of the weekend massacre at a nightclub by a lone gunman. At least 50 people died Brendan Smialowski: AFP/Getty Images

With the massacre at a Florida nightclub serving as a backdrop Monday, FBI Director James Comey asked Americans to be more watchful, lamenting the fact that “somebody always sees something” they should have reported but did not.

In the case of Justin Sullivan, an accused Charlotte-area ISIS sympathizer, somebody did.

Court documents credit a 2015 phone call from Sullivan’s family for tipping off the FBI to the Morganton man’s troubling behavior. Two months later, Sullivan was under arrest.

Three years ago, Omar Mateen’s co-workers reported his boasts of ties to militant Islamic groups. Early Sunday morning, the 29-year-old security officer killed 49 customers at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., including victims from Statesville and Concord, before he was shot dead by police.

Mateen and Sullivan share striking similarities. Authorities say both became online converts to Islamic violence. A year before the Orlando killings, court documents say Sullivan wrote of targeting a club or concert to kill as many people as possible in support of the Islamic State group.

Sullivan, who turned 20 last week, also conspired online with an undercover FBI agent to buy an AR-15 assault rifle, the same weapon Mateen used to slaughter his victims.

There is one potential key difference: In April 2015, documents say, Jerry Sullivan called 911 to say his stepson was using gasoline to torch the family’s religious figurines. “I don’t know if it’s ISIS or what, but he's destroying Buddhas … and stuff. We’re afraid to leave the house,” Sullivan said.

Within weeks, an undercover agent was conversing with //Justin Sullivan online as he plotted to acquire the firepower to kill up to 1,000 people. He was arrested that June. By that time, federal prosecutors say, Sullivan had already murdered and robbed an elderly neighbor to raise money for his plot. Sullivan now faces the death penalty. An expert on Islamic terrorism in America says his parents’ phone call may have saved more lives.

“The main difference between the (Sullivan and Mateen) cases is the informant,” says Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security and a co-author of the 2015 report “ISIS in America.”

“I think when a father calls about his son, the alert rises to a higher level than just the kind of stuff you get from an FBI field office.”

According to Hughes, 88 Americans have been charged with ISIS-related crimes since March 2014. Most, like Sullivan and Mateen, are young and male. The suspects’ average age is 26. More than half the arrests involved an informant or an undercover agent.

Comey has said the bureau is investigating about 1,000 ISIS-related cases in all 50 states. The agency likely has tips on thousands more.

Charlotte consultant Chris Swecker, former head of the FBI’s criminal investigations division, says the Charlotte FBI office received some 5,000 calls reporting suspicious activity in the first two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The bureau has to investigate every little ground ball, and it’s hard to sort through what’s a legitimate threat and what’s not,” said Swecker who headed the agency’s 2008 probe into a Hezbollah terror cell in Charlotte and also oversaw the capture of 1996 Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph. “I don’t care what anybody says. They don’t have enough resources to get it all done.”

The FBI investigated Mateen twice, Comey said, each time for possible links to terrorists, but never brought charges. He said the agency is reviewing its handling of the case.

Hughes said he wonders whether “resource issues” contributed to the close of the first investigation, which lasted 10 months.

Swecker says the question to be answered in Orlando is whether agents investigated all leads or stopped the probe of Mateen prematurely. “I don’t think they would have dropped this inquiry if they had any indication that he was about to go off.”

Even so, he said, the FBI needs earlier cooperation from co-workers and family members to suspected terrorists, as was the situation in the Sullivan case.

“Every time one of these things happens, the person in question has been flashing red,” he said. “And nobody picks up the phone.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS