Just a few days after news broke of a Washington, D.C. transit police officer’s arrest for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State, the Justice Department announced filing similar charges against 35-year-old Erick Jamal Hendricks of North Carolina.
The D.C. case was about helping ISIS communicate with secure messaging applications, but Hendricks has been charged with conspiring to provide even more substantial support. He tried to “recruit people to train together and conduct terrorist attacks in the United States” on behalf of the Islamic State, according to the criminal complaint.
Specifically, Hendricks — who posted under the names “Mustafa” and “Abu Harb” — was said to be in communication with an individual arrested in Ohio in 2015 after trying to purchase an AK-47 from an undercover law enforcement officer. This individual had pledged allegiance to ISIS and expressed interest in conducting terrorist attacks on American soil.
Hendricks attempted to recruit this person in the spring of 2015, telling him there were ISIS “brothers” in Texas and Mexico he was trying to “meet face-to-face” so they could “train together.”
The ISIS recruit said Hendricks tested his knowledge of Islam and his enthusiasm for martyrdom. Another person who communicated with Hendricks online, an undercover FBI informant, said Hendricks recommended martyrdom and jihad literature as reading material.
According to this informant, Hendricks encouraged his recruits to go out and find other “brothers” who would be willing to join his sleeper cell, which he said had already attracted ten members. “It’s hard to sift through brothers… Allah chooses only the few,” he mused.
Prospective targets for the Hendricks terror cell included military personnel, whose information was exposed by ISIS hackers, and Pamela Geller, whom the Justice Department curiously refers to only in Hendricks’s words, as “the woman who organized the ‘Draw Prophet Mohammad contest.'”
Hendricks was allegedly in contact with one of the jihadis who attacked Geller’s art contest, Elton Simpson, and also helped the FBI’s informant speak with him. Hendricks wanted the FBI informant to join the attack on Geller, saying, “if you see that pig, make your ‘voice’ heard against her.” He also pumped the informant for details of security at the venue Geller used for her event.
This part of the Hendricks indictment has generated some controversy because the undercover FBI agent actively encouraged Elton Simpson to “Tear up Texas.”
Simpson’s reply was, “You know what happened in Paris, so that goes without saying.” Not long after that conversation, Simpson and his accomplice Nadir Soofir were killed by security personnel while attempting to carry out a massacre at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland.
“It would certainly be inappropriate for an FBI undercover agent or cooperating witness to provoke or inspire or urge a person to commit an act of violence,” former FBI agent Michael German told the Daily Beast.
German allowed that the FBI operative might have just been caught up in the “hyperbolic rhetoric” used by jihadis online and wasn’t specifically urging Simpson to “go to Texas and do harm,” but he said the Hendricks affidavit raised questions for “overseers within Congress and the Justice Department.”
The Daily Beast suggests one of those questions would be precisely what the FBI operative told Hendricks when he demanded security details about Geller’s event, a detail not covered by the affidavit.
The Charlotte Observer reports that Hendricks did manage to arrange some face-to-face meetings with his recruits. At one such meeting in Baltimore in March 2015, he claimed he owned land in Arkansas, where he grew up, that would be “off the grid.” This land would be ideal for him to build a jihadi training camp that would be “hidden in plain sight.” He was planning to obtain the weapons he needed by raiding military depots.
The Observer notes that Hendricks only recently moved to the Charlotte area after living in Virginia. A spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte said he attended no mosques in the area.
Hendricks nevertheless presented himself as a devout Muslim, proclaiming on his Facebook page, “I have not smoked one blunt or dranked one drop of liquar [sic]; or had one single, solitary act of sex outside of marriage; or defiled my body with the prohibited meat in almost 15 years.”
One ironic detail to emerge from media accounts of Hendricks is that he was paranoid about law enforcement surveillance, even though he was unwittingly providing a great deal of damaging information to an FBI informant. He evidently believed he could evade online surveillance by breaking keywords like “mujahadeen” (holy warrior) and “hijrah” (migration) into multiple words, or deliberately misspelling them.
According to ABC News, Hendricks has not yet entered a plea for the charges against him.