A new indictment alleges that a Charlotte-area teenager communicated directly with a notorious Syria-based terrorist while planning his first act of violence on behalf of the “Islamic State of North America.”
According to the court document, the U.S. Attorney’s Office says that Justin Sullivan of Morganton promised ISIS member Junaid Hussain that he would make a video of his terrorist attacks that ISIS could use as propaganda.
Those email exchanges began June 9, 2015, the indictment says. They didn’t last long.
On June 19, 2015, Sullivan obtained the money he needed to buy an AR-15 assault rifle, the new indictment says. That same day, he and Hussain discussed the making of a video to go with Sullivan’s upcoming terrorist attack.
Two days later, the FBI arrested Sullivan at his parents’ home. Two months after that, Hussain, 21, an accomplished hacker and a key figure in ISIS’ online recruiting campaign, was killed in an American drone strike outside of Raqqa, Syria.
According to the New York Times, the British-raised Hussain, also known as Abu Hussain al-Brittani, was a key figure in the Islamic State’s use of social media to recruit fighters and spread propaganda. His specific group, known as the CyberCaliphate, has also been linked to terrorists acts in Britain and the United States.
“Hussain played a prominent role as both a propagandist and an operator encouraging attacks,” said Seamus Hughes, a George Washington University terrorism expert, and co-author of “ISIS in America,” which details the more than 100 terrorism incidents inspired by the Islamic State. “Sullivan’s communication with Hussain would have likely raised significant flags within law enforcement community.”
Hughes says Hussain has linked to at least three U.S. cases.
In 2015, the same year he and Sullivan began their online correspondence, Hussain also exchanged messages with a young Ohio man who planned to kidnap and behead a government official, then attack a police station with automatic weapons and Molotov cocktails.
In May 2015, Hussain used Twitter to offer encouragement to two American gunmen who attacked a contest for caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in Garland, Texas. “Allahu Akbar!!!!! 2 of our brothers just opened fire ... ” he said in a Tweet after the shooting took place.
Federal authorities cited the Texas attack earlier this month when they arrested and charged Erick Jamal Hendricks of Charlotte with recruiting for ISIS. An indictment alleges that Hendricks had ties to one of the Garland shooters and was attempting to recruit and train an ISIS cell. Hendricks told the Observer that the charges are not true, and that he had served as a paid FBI informant to avert terrorist attacks.
Whether Hussain personally recruited Sullivan is unclear. But their alleged association has brought new criminal allegations against Sullivan. The new indictment charges him with conspiring and attempting to commit an attack of terrorism transcending national boundaries. The crimes carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Sullivan, 20, already faces the death penalty in a capital murder charge against him in Burke County. He is accused of the December 2014 shooting death of an elderly neighbor, John Bailey Clark, 74. State and federal prosecutors say Sullivan killed and robbed Clark as part of his larger plot to acquire the firepower needed to launch the larger terrorist attack that he allegedly bragged about to Hussain. Sullivan told the undercover FBI agent by email that he hoped to kill up to 1,000 people. His trials in state and federal court have not been scheduled.
Sullivan’s attorney in the federal case, Fredilyn Sison of Asheville, did not reply to an email seeking comment Thursday. Hickory attorney Victoria Jayne, who will represent Sullivan in the murder case, said she had read the new indictment but that it was unrelated to his Burke County case. In response to the murder charge, Jayne said Sullivan is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
According to published reports, Hussain also radicalized at a young age. In 2012, he was arrested and imprisoned in Great Britain after he hacked into former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s address book. He was free on bail when he fled to Syria in 2013.
There, he and the CyberCaliphate were credited with breaking into the Twitter and YouTube accounts of the U.S. Central Military Command. He was also linked to a planned bombing of an Armed Forces Day parade in London using a device similar to what went off at the 2013 Boston Marathon, the Times says.
The plot was thwarted after Hussain revealed details to an undercover British tabloid reporter posing as a potential recruit.