Justin Nojan Sullivan, a 20-year-old man from Morganton, North Carolina, pleaded guilty to terrorism charges today after admitting that he had conspired online with Junaid Hussain, who was one of the Islamic State’s key digital operatives.
Hussain was killed in an American airstrike in Raqqa, Syria on Aug. 24, 2015. But his virtual fingerprints continue to be uncovered, as Hussain has been tied to a number of Islamic State supporters in both the US and UK.
Sullivan (seen on the right) was arrested in June 2015, just over two months before Hussain was killed.
“Sullivan was in contact and plotted with now-deceased Syria-based terrorist Junaid Hussain to execute acts of mass violence in the United States in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),” Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security Mary B. McCord said in a statement.
“Sullivan admitted in court today that he attempted to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries by planning mass casualty shooting attacks on behalf of ISIL against innocent people in North Carolina and Virginia,” US Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose of the Western District of North Carolina added. “Sullivan also admitted he had frequent and direct communications with Junaid Hussain, one of ISIL’s prominent members in Syria, who asked Sullivan to make a video of the deadly attack.” Sullivan agreed to make the video.
US Attorney Rose said it was “frightening to know that” Sullivan “was able to use social media to contact and seek advice from ISIL, a murderous organization.”
The FBI pieced together the details of Sullivan’s and Hussain’s communications, which began “no later” than June 7, 2015.
Sullivan was also intercepted online by an undercover FBI employee (UCE), to whom he divulged the details of his plotting. Sullivan told the UCE that he planned to attack a “concert, bar or club, where he believed as many as 1,000 people would be killed using” an “assault rifle and silencer.” Such a casualty count seems highly improbable, but clearly reflects his murderous intentions.
Sullivan and Hussain “conspired” to “plan mass shooting attacks in North Carolina and Virginia,” with Sullivan intending “to kill hundreds of innocent people.”
The FBI found that Sullivan began to watch and collect Islamic State propaganda, including beheading videos, “no later than” Sept. 2014. He also “destroyed religious items that belonged to his parents.” Sullivan’s mother once opened a package containing a silencer he planned to use in his massacre of innocents. He came to believe that his parents “would interfere” with his plot, so he “offered to compensate the UCE to kill them.” Sullivan’s fear was well-placed, as his own father ultimately helped turn him in.
A grand jury also alleged that Sullivan killed his neighbor, John Bailey Clark. Sullivan did not admit that he committed the murder, but prosecutors have reserved the “right to prove this additional conduct at Sullivan’s sentencing hearing.”
The Islamic State has consistently told supporters that they could better serve the so-called caliphate by striking in the West, rather than traveling abroad to wage jihad on the battlefields in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere. Sullivan apparently responded to this directive, as he told the FBI’s UCE “via social media that it was better to remain in the United States to support ISIL than to travel.”
Digital operatives and “remote-controlled” terror
It is often difficult to assess how much of a threat an aspiring jihadist poses. The FBI is tracking hundreds of potential cases at any given time.
Sullivan’s contacts with Hussain stand out as especially important, however, given that Islamic State operatives such as Hussain have guided a series of plots in the West.
Earlier this year, Munir Abdulkader pleaded guilty to terrorism charges after he also admitted to communicating with Junaid Hussain. According to the Department of Justice, Hussain “directed and encouraged Abdulkader,” who lived in Ohio, “to plan and execute a violent attack within the United States.” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Ohio man conspired with Islamic State recruiter, Justice Department says.]
It is likely that Hussain was also in contact with the two gunmen who opened fire at an event dedicated to drawing images of the Prophet Mohammed in Garland, Texas on May 3, 2015. As The New York Times reported, one of the two gunmen, Elton Simpson, tweeted that people should follow an account linked to Hussain shortly before his failed assault. Hussain’s tweets before the attempted shooting indicated that he possibly had foreknowledge of Simpson’s plans. The tweets suggest that there may have been more to Simpson’s relationship with Hussain.
British officials also connected Hussain to plots in the UK. In September 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron disclosed that intelligence officials had tied Hussain and another Islamic State operative, Reyaad Khan, to planned attacks. According to Cameron, Hussain and Khan “were British nationals based in Syria who were involved in actively recruiting [Islamic State] sympathizers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the West, including directing a number of planned terrorist attacks right here in Britain, such as plots to attack high profile public commemorations, including those taking place this summer.” Khan was also killed in an airstrike in Syria. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Prime Minister says 2 British nationals killed in airstrikes were plotting attacks.]
According to the US State Department, Hussain’s wife, Sally Jones, has also been involved in the Islamic State’s online plotting. Foggy Bottom added Jones to the US government’s designated terrorist list in Sept. 2015.
“Jones and Hussain targeted American military personnel through publication of a ‘hit list’ online to encourage lone offender attacks,” the State Department explained. “Jones has used social media to recruit women to join” the Islamic State and, in August 2015, “encouraged individuals aspiring to conduct attacks in Britain by offering guidance on how to construct homemade bombs.”
Hussain isn’t the only digital planner whose reach has extended into the US.
Another Ohio man, Aaron Travis Daniels, was arrested earlier this month as he was beginning his journey to Libya. Daniels was allegedly in contact with an Islamic State operative known as Abu Isa Al Amriki, who acted as a “recruiter and external attack planner.” According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), Daniels said at one point that it was al Amriki who “suggested” he go to Libya “to support jihad.” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Ohio man allegedly communicated with an Islamic State ‘external attack planner’.]
Al Amriki and his wife, an Australian national known as Umm Isa Amriki, were killed in an airstrike near Al Bab, Syria on Apr. 22. The DOJ does not allege that al Amriki instructed Daniels to commit an attack inside the US. But his ability to communicate with Daniels online is further evidence of the Islamic State’s long online reach. Al Amriki has been tied to other cases as well.
The Islamic State’s digital planners were especially effective at guiding a series of plots in France and Germany earlier this year. In at least some cases, terrorists were in contact with their Islamic State handlers right up until the moment of their attacks. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Terror plots in Germany, France were ‘remote-controlled’ by Islamic State operatives.]