Justin Nojan Sullivan, 20, of Morganton, North Carolina,
appeared in federal court in Asheville, North Carolina today and pleaded guilty
to one count of attempting to commit an act of terrorism transcending national
The announcement was made by Acting Assistant Attorney
General for National Security Mary B. McCord, U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland
Rose of the Western District of North Carolina and Special Agent in Charge John
A. Strong of the FBI’s Charlotte, North Carolina, Division. U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger presided
over Sullivan’s plea hearing.
“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),”
said Acting Assistant Attorney General McCord.
“Counterterrorism remains our highest priority and we will continue to
identify and hold accountable those who seek to commit acts of terrorism within
“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. 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,” said U.S. Attorney Rose.
“There is no more important work that we in the Department of Justice
undertake than the fight against terrorism.
It is frightening to know that the defendant in this case was able to
use social media to contact and seek advice from ISIL, a murderous
organization. Yet, it emboldens us to be
fiercely aggressive and diligent in our efforts to combat this special kind of
evil.” U.S. Attorney Rose added.
“Justin Sullivan planned to kill hundreds of innocent
people. He pledged his support to ISIL
and took calculated steps to commit a murderous rampage to prove his allegiance
to the terrorist organization. There is
no higher priority for the FBI than to thwart the next terrorist attack. This case is proof of what law enforcement
agencies can accomplish to disrupt terrorist activities of any kind,” said
Special Agent in Charge Strong.
According to information contained in plea documents,
starting no later than September 2014, Sullivan watched violent ISIL attacks on
the Internet, such as beheadings, and collected them on his laptop
computer. Court records indicate that
Sullivan openly expressed support for ISIL in his home and destroyed religious
items that belonged to his parents.
Beginning no later than June 7, 2015, Sullivan conspired
with Junaid Hussain, a prominent ISIL member responsible for online recruitment
and providing directions and inspiration for terrorist plots in Western
countries, to plan mass shooting attacks in North Carolina and Virginia. Sullivan discussed those plans on social
media with an undercover FBI employee (UCE), who Sullivan attempted to recruit
to join in such attacks.
Court documents indicate that Sullivan told the UCE via
social media that it was better to remain in the United States to support ISIL
than to travel. Sullivan suggested that
the UCE obtain weapons and told the UCE that he was planning to buy a
semi-automatic AR-15 rifle at an upcoming gun show in Hickory, North
Carolina. On or about June 20, 2015,
Sullivan attempted to purchase hollow point ammunition to be used with the
weapon(s) he intended to purchase.
According to court records, Sullivan had researched on the
Internet how to manufacture firearm silencers and asked the UCE to build
functional silencers that they could use to carry out the planned attacks. Court records show that Sullivan told the UCE
he planned to carry out his attack in the following few days at a concert, bar
or club, where he believed as many as 1,000 people would be killed using the
assault rifle and silencer.
Filed documents indicate that over the course of Sullivan’s
communications with Junaid Hussain, Hussain had asked Sullivan to make a video
of his planned terrorist attack, to which Sullivan had agreed.
On or about June 19, 2015, the silencer, which was built
according to Sullivan’s instructions, was delivered to him at his home in North
Carolina, where Sullivan’s mother opened the package, according to court
records. Sullivan took the silencer from
his mother and hid it in a crawl space under his house. When Sullivan’s parents questioned him about
the silencer, Sullivan, believing that his parents would interfere with his
plans to carry out an attack, offered to compensate the UCE to kill them.
In filed plea documents, Sullivan admitted that he took
substantial steps towards carrying out terrorist attacks in North Carolina and
Virginia by: (1) recruiting the UCE; (2) obtaining a silencer from the UCE; (3)
procuring the money that would have enabled him to purchase the AR-15; (4)
trying to obtain a specific type of ammunition that he believed would be the
most “deadly”; (5) identifying separate gun shows where he and the UCE could
purchase AR-15s; and (6) obtained coupons for the gun shows he planned for himself
and the UCE to attend on June 20 or 21, 2015.
According to filed documents, on June 19, 2015, Sullivan was
arrested at his parents’ home, where law enforcement also executed a search
warrant for the silencer and other items.
Law enforcement interviewed Sullivan on separate occasions following his
arrest. Sullivan also provided false statements on his involvement in the
murder of his neighbor, John Bailey Clark, who had been killed in December
2014. Sullivan later admitted that he
had stolen the rifle from his father’s gun cabinet and hid it in the crawl
space. Forensic testing shows that the
.22 rifle hidden by Sullivan was used to murder Mr. Clark.
The grand jury alleged that Sullivan also killed Mr. Clark,
but Sullivan did not admit to this act in his plea today. However, in the plea documents filed, the
United States Attorney set forth evidence supporting this allegation and
specifically reserved the Government’s right to prove this additional conduct
at Sullivan’s sentencing hearing.
The District Attorney’s Office for North Carolina’s 25th
Prosecutorial District, which includes Burke, Caldwell and Catawba Counties, is
handling North Carolina’s prosecution of Sullivan for Clark’s murder.
Sullivan is currently in federal custody. According to the filed plea agreement,
Sullivan pleaded guilty to Count Nine of the Superseding Indictment, which
charged him with attempting to commit an act of terrorism transcending national
boundaries, an offense that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Under the plea agreement, the parties have
agreed that a sentence of life in prison is an appropriate sentence.
In making today’s announcement, Acting Assistant Attorney
General McCord and U.S. Attorney Rose thanked District Attorney David Learner
for his office’s continued assistance and coordination. Both also praised the investigative efforts
of the FBI, the Burke County Sheriff’s Office and the North Carolina State
Bureau of Investigation in this case.
Acting Assistant Attorney General McCord and U.S. Attorney Rose also
thanked the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Charlotte Division, the U.S.
Secret Service, the North Carolina Highway Patrol, the U.S. Attorney’s Office
of the Eastern District of Virginia, the FBI’s Washington Field Office and the
Hickory Police Department for their assistance in this investigation.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney
Michael E. Savage of the Western District of North Carolina and Trial Attorney
Gregory R. Gonzalez of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism