Politics & Government

Terror suspect says he was paid FBI informant and ‘baffled’ by charges

Mother reads statement from son charged as terrorist

Erick Jamal Hendricks was arrested and accused of trying to recruit domestic terrorists for the Islamic State. Hendricks' mother, Linda Woods, recently read a statement from her son in his defense.
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Erick Jamal Hendricks was arrested and accused of trying to recruit domestic terrorists for the Islamic State. Hendricks' mother, Linda Woods, recently read a statement from her son in his defense.

A Charlotte man accused of recruiting for the Islamic State claims that he worked for years with the FBI to identify potential terrorists.

Erick Jamal Hendricks, 35, is charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization. In Hendricks’ case, that group is ISIS.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI say that while living in Columbia and possibly other cities the converted Muslim used social media to recruit potential converts to ISIS. The group has claimed responsibility for acts of terrorism that have killed scores of people worldwide, including in the United States.

Hendricks moved to Charlotte about a month ago. He was arrested at his home Aug. 4.

In a statement from his Mecklenburg County Jail cell given to the Observer by his mother, Hendricks claims to have been a paid informant of the FBI since 2009 who helped the agency identify potential terrorists. Code name: “Ahkie,” a variation of the Muslim term for “brother.”

He also claims to have been an outspoken and longtime opponent of radical Islam.

“I have publicly, privately and consistently denounced Al-Qaeda, ISIS and all extremist groups,” Hendricks said in a statement that Lisa Woods says her son dictated during a Wednesday phone call from the jail.

“I am baffled as to why the FBI (is) accusing me of terrorist ties.”

But Hendricks also had ties to a mosque in Virginia that has been linked to an Islamic organization whose members have included terrorists linked to the 9-11 bombings and Al-Qaeda.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI say the Arkansas native spent months in 2015 trying to recruit ISIS sympathizers online and through social media to train and unleash terrorist attacks in the United Sates for ISIS. He was unaware he was communicating with an FBI operative, bureau informants and an admitted ISIS sympathizer who was arrested in Ohio after he illegally bought an assault rifle, authorities say.

Tuesday, the 6-foot-6, 280-pound Hendricks sobbed in a Charlotte courtroom as his attorney argued his innocence. U.S. Magistrate Judge David Cayer of Charlotte order Hendricks held pending his transfer to Cleveland for trial.

In documents filed in connection with the case, Cayer said Hendricks was a flight risk and cited the government’s allegations that he was recruiting for ISIS, owned assault weapons and had connections “with individuals concerning a terrorist attack in Garland, Texas.”

‘Denouncing every ignoramus’

According to the FBI affidavit unsealed on the day of Hendricks’ arrest, the defendant had social media links with Elton Simpson, one of two gunmen behind the ISIS-inspired shootings at the “First Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” in Garland in May 2015.

Two months later, Hendricks made this post on the Facebook page set up under his Muslim name, Mustafa Abu Maryam: “I reject the killing of innocents and all acts of terror everywhere! I am not political, nor will you see me denouncing every ignoramus that thinks he is pleasing Allah by blowing up a race for cancer or shooting men, women and children trying to have family time in a local shopping mall!”

On July 15, 2016, after a Muslim extremist used his truck to mow down bystanders on a crowded sidewalk in Nice, France, Hendricks added this: “I ask Allah to bring to justice all those who justify these horrendous acts in His Name. They are extremists who have lost touch with the right path.”

Whether Hendricks’ working relationship with the the FBI was real or a flight of fancy is not clear. The bureau has a long history of relying on paid informants within groups they are investigating – from the Ku Klux Klan and the Communist Party to Civil Rights groups and the Hollywood writers’ guild.

The Observer contacted three separate FBI offices for this story. The Charlotte FBI, which helped arrest Hendricks, referred questions to its Cleveland counterpart, the lead investigators in the case. That office did not respond to an email for comment. Neither did the field office in Columbia, S.C., with which Hendricks said he worked and which took part in his arrest.

Carol Cratty of the FBI’s national press office in Washington, D.C., said the agency had “no additional information to provide on the case.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland, which will prosecute Hendricks, did not return a phone call seeking a response to Hendricks’ claims.

‘Wholesome kids’

In his statement, Hendricks says the FBI first made contact with him in 2009, when as Mustafa Abu Maryam, Hendricks was the youth coordinator of the Islamic Circle of North America Center in Alexandria, Va.

Five young Virginia men who had attended the mosque were arrested in Pakistan that December on terrorism charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Hendricks/Maryam told reporters at the time of their arrests that the teens as “fun-loving and career-focused. ... They were very wholesome kids. Very goofy. You know, talked about girls,” he said.

The mosque was of interest to Homeland Security officials because it was a branch of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center of Falls Church, Va., where Anwar al-Awlaki preached in 2001 and 2002. Al-Awlaki was believed by U.S. intelligence agencies to be a terrorist recruiter who planned operations for Al-Qaeda. He was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

Two of the 9-11 hijackers worshiped at Dar Al-Hijrah, as did Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009.

In his jail statement, Hendricks says he was recruited in 2009 by an FBI agent named David to help identify potential terrorists. In 2010, after Hendricks had moved to Columbia, he says he worked with another FBI agent named Steve. Altogether, Hendricks claims to have developed “at least a half-dozen” cases against extremists.

In 2015, when he and his then-wife moved back to Arkansas to live on his mother’s property, Hendricks says his working relationship with the FBI continued. That May, however, he says the FBI began following him. He says he noticed cameras on telephone poles outside his home and claims to have later found a GPS device on his car.

‘If I was so evil ...’

Hendricks was born in Little Rock, Ark., and grew up in the rural suburb of Woodson.

At 16, he got into trouble for joyriding in a stolen car with a friend. When he failed to pay the fine, he went to juvenile detention for 100 days, says his mother, a registered nurse in the Little Rock area.

There he converted to Islam, emerging from incarceration wearing a taqiyah, a Muslim skullcap, Woods said.

She approved of his adoption to the Muslim faith. “He prayed five times a day and didn’t get into any more trouble,” said Woods, who said she was strict with her four children. “He was on the wrong track when he was young, but got on the right track.”

He got his GED certificate at 16, ran a pizza parlor in Little Rock for a while, then left for northern Virginia. He moved to Columbia in 2009 and worked steadily in cellphone and electronics business, she said.

In January 2015, Hendricks moved back with his wife to Woodson. He was building a cabin in his mother’s yard, but returned to Columbia in May 2015 after he felt he was being targeted and watched by the FBI, she said.

Woods said she first heard of her son’s role as an FBI informant during his stay in the first half of 2015. She says she believes her son is innocent of all charges.

In July 2016, he moved to Charlotte, she said, because he was getting a lot of business from the area. A few weeks later he was arrested by the FBI.

Until being charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, a crime that carries a sentence up to 15 years, Hendricks only had minor traffic infractions and failure to pay child support charges on his adult record.

Hendricks’ sister, Shalonda Johnson, who drove in from Arkansas with Woods for Hendricks’ court hearing this week, told the Observer that she has never seen her brother with a weapon or heard him advocate for any extremist position.

“My brother has always been an active supporter and motivator in my life,” she said. “He has always encouraged me to do good instead of bad.”

In his statement, Hendricks says he does not know any of the people making the allegations against him. While the affidavit focuses on his behavior in 2015, Hendricks claims he brought a potential terrorist to the FBI’s attention that spring.

“If I was so evil or such a threat,” he says, “why would I continue to cooperate on cases built against extremists?”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs

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