A Charlotte man arrested Thursday on charges of trying to recruit radical Islamic terrorists apparently did much of his work while living in Columbia, according to a federal complaint and the FBI.
Erick Jamal Hendricks, 35, used largely social media to identify people to train and to join ISIL – also known as ISIS – between early March last year and end of May 2015, according to federal charges.
Hendricks also claimed to be planning a secret training camp on U.S. soil and was involved though not present during a failed May 2015 terrorist attack in Garland, Texas, over an art event that mocked pictures of the prophet Muhammad.
Hendricks lived in Columbia from May 2015 to June 2016, according to Special Agent Vicki Anderson with the FBI office in Cleveland,where the charges were issued.
Nearly half of the instances listed in the 35-page federal complaint where Hendricks is said to have communicated with people for terrorist purposes took place in May 2015 – 12 out of 29 conversations cited in the document.
During one in-person meeting with a recruit in the Baltimore area on May 2, 2015, an FBI agent said a Honda Odyssey van that had a South Carolina license plate and was registered to Hendricks’ ex-wife was spotted. The couple divorced in 2009.
Hendricks and his ex-wife, who is not named in the complaint, met with the potential recruit, according to the federal document from Cleveland FBI agents and the federal prosecutor’s office for northern Ohio.
S.C. State Law Enforcement Division agents worked with the investigation, chief Mark Keel said, declining to elaborate.”We were heavily involved in activities that have resulted in today’s action,” Keel said in a Thursday statement.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said his agency also played a role in the investigation of Hendricks. “This was a Columbia-based (Joint Terrorism Task Force) investigation and we were heavily involved,” Lott said.
The task force combines local and state police agencies with the FBI to handle homeland security cases. The sheriff’s department has one full-time officer assigned to the task force, Lott said.
Hendricks’ connection to Charlotte is recent, according to the Cleveland FBI office.
“He had just relocated to Charlotte within the last month,” Anderson said.
Suspect was talking to undercover operatives
Hendricks was obsessed with security while connecting on social media sites, unbeknownst that he’d been communicating with an FBI undercover operative and others who’d agreed to cooperate with investigators, according to an affidavit by Scott Hare, an FBI counter-terrorism agent.
During the meeting in Baltimore with others he believed to be part of his ISIS ring, Hendricks said he had land in Arkansas where he could “get off the grid” and prepare for bloody battle with law enforcement.
Three months later, Hendricks told the FBI operative that he wanted to construct a training center “hidden in plain sight … Farm, house, garden, tunnels,” Hare said in the affidavit.
In communications with others, he claimed to have 10 operatives in the United States and hoped to raid military depots for weapons, authorities said.
Until being charged Thursday with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, a crime that carries a sentence up to 15 years, Hendricks only had minor traffic infractions on his record.
He appeared at a short hearing Thursday at the federal courthouse in Charlotte. A small group of people who said they knew Hendricks gathered briefly outside, but declined to talk to an Observer reporter.
Hendricks grew up in Woodson, Ark., near Little Rock, and until recently had been living in Virginia.
Began in Ohio
Hendricks’ case appears to have dovetailed with an arrest in Ohio in June 2015. Federal authorities said that an unidentified man in the Cleveland area tried to buy an AK-47 assault rifle and ammunition from an undercover officer.
That man later pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization and two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He had an extensive criminal record including four felony convictions for drug trafficking.
He entered into a plea agreement with the federal government that allowed for a reduced sentence if he cooperated with investigators.
He told the FBI that he had been contacted by Hendricks through social media in the spring of 2015 as a possible ISIS recruit after pledging allegiance to ISIS and indicating on social media he would be interested in conducting attacks in the United States.
Hendricks told the man he “needed people” and wanted to meet with him, the federal complaint says.
Hendricks also told the man that there were “brothers” in Texas and Mexico; that he was attempting to “get brothers to meet face to face” and that he wanted “to get brothers to train together.”
Hendricks tested the man’s religious knowledge and commitment to Islam, asking whether he’d be willing to commit “jihad,” to die as a “martyr” and his desire to enter paradise.
Authorities said the Ohio man took this to mean that Hendricks was seeking recruits for a terrorist attack in the U.S. and to find out if the man was a suitable candidate.
Hendricks also criticized the Ohio man for his involvement in selling marijuana, saying it was an affront to Muslim faith.
Hendricks had also been talking through social media to someone working undercover for the FBI.
On April 16, 2015, authorities said, Hendricks told the FBI operative to download the document “GPS for the Ghuraba in the U.S.”
Among other instructions, the document encouraged followers to die as martyrs rather than be arrested and jailed. “Boobie (sic) trap your homes,” “lay in wait for them” and to “never leave your home without your AK-47 or M16,” the document advised.
Hendricks kept in contact with the FBI operative and at least two other confidential informants on the federal payroll, authorities say. He changed online identities regularly and instructed them on security protocols so they wouldn’t be detected by federal investigators, records said.
Attack on contest
On April 23, 2015, authorities said, Hendricks contacted a man named Elton Simpson through social media. Along with Nadir Hamid Soofi, Simpson launched the ISIS-inspired attack on the “First Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” in Garland, Texas, May 3, 2015.
Police killed two gunmen in the attack. It followed the January 2015 attack on the French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had run mocking cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Creating depictions of Muhammad is forbidden in Islamic beliefs.
Simpson and Soofi wounded a security guard and were killed by Garland police guarding the event.
Authorities said Hendricks had been in touch with Simpson through social media and urged the FBI’s undercover operative to attend the contest on the day of the attack. Hendricks asked the operative on the day of the attack through social media questions about security:
“How many police/agents?” “Do you see feds there?’ “Do you see snipers?” Hendricks asked through messages.
Hendricks’ next court appearance, a detention hearing, is scheduled for Tuesday in Charlotte before U.S. Magistrate David Cayer.
State staff writers Tim Flach and Clif LeBlanc contributed.