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NC Terror Suspect Pleads Guilty, Faces Life In Prison

Justin Sullivan leaves court in a file photo from February 2016.
Davie Hinshaw
Charlotte Observer
Justin Sullivan in a file photo from February 2016.

A 20-year-old Morganton man has pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to commit terrorism on behalf of the Islamic State terrorist group. The plea bargain at federal court in Asheville on Tuesday avoids a January trial for Justin Sullivan.   

Prosecutors had planned to try Sullivan on nine terrorism-related counts. He pleaded guilty to a single charge of attempting to commit an act of international terrorism in June 2015.  The agreement calls for the maximum sentence of life in prison.

Sullivan still faces a state murder charge in Burke County in the shooting death of his 74-year-old neighbor, John Clark. In his plea Tuesday, he did not admit to the murder. Authorities say Sullivan robbed and killed Clark in December 2014 to get money to buy a rifle and carry out an attack.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Sullivan talked to an undercover FBI agent about his plans in 2015. They said Sullivan plotted to commit acts of mass violence with a now-deceased terrorist named Junaid Hussain. Officials say Hussein was a prominent member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

As part of the plea agreement, Sullivan admitted to planning a mass killing on behalf of the group. He acknowledged frequent contact with Hussain, who asked Sullivan to make a video of an attack.

“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,” FBI Special Agent in Charge John Strong said in a press release after Tuesday's court hearing.

No attack ever happened, and Sullivan was arrested in June 2015. At one point, prosecutors alleged, Sullivan offered an undercover agent money to kill his parents, fearing they would interfere with his plans for an attack.

He was indicted by a federal grand jury in February, and the indictment was updated with new allegations in August.  The indictment says Sullivan attempted to provide material support to the terrorist group, possessed a gun stolen from his father, and used the gun to kill the neighbor.

Prosecutors say Sullivan converted to Islam in 2015 and showed a fascination with violence, including videos that showed Islamic State beheadings. Prosecutors say he also had destroyed religious items belong to his parents.


Aug. 16, 2016, Revised indictment, US v. Justin Sullivan (PDF)

Nov. 29, 2016, U.S. Department of Justice press release on Sullivan's guilty plea.