Days before an ISIS sympathizer attacked a cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, he received a text from an undercover FBI agent.
“Tear up Texas,” the agent messaged Elton Simpson days before he opened fire at the Draw Muhammad event, according to an affidavit (pdf) filed in federal court Thursday.
“U know what happened in Paris,” Simpson responded. “So that goes without saying… No need to be direct.”
That revelation comes amidst a national debate about the use of undercover officers and human sources in terrorism cases. Undercover sources are used in more than half of ISIS-related terror cases, according to statistics kept by the George Washington University Program on Extremism, and civil-liberties advocates say some of those charged might not have escalated their behavior without those interventions.
“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,” Michael German, a former FBI agent now at the Brennan Center for Justice, told The Daily Beast. “I could imagine an undercover agent thinking it was just the hyperbolic rhetoric they are participating in, and it wasn’t an intent to go to Texas and do harm.
“The affidavit raises a lot more questions than it answers, and I would hope that overseers within Congress and the Justice Department would want to take a hard look at the scope of this investigation,” he added.
The texts were included in the indictment, released Thursday, of Erick Jamal Hendricks of Charlotte, North Carolina. He was charged with conspiring to provide material support to ISIS. The 35-year-old tried to recruit other Americans to form an ISIS cell on secret compounds and introduced an undercover agent to one of the Draw Muhammad attackers, according to the FBI.
But Hendricks did more than make a connection. According to the court papers, he asked the undercover officer about the Draw Muhammad event’s security, size, and police presence, during the event, according to an affidavit filed in court.
The affidavit does not specify what the undercover responded to questions about size and security.
“If you see that pig [Pamela Geller] make your ‘voice’ heard against her,” Hendricks allegedly told the undercover agent, referring to a notorious Islamophobe.
Press officers for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio, the Cleveland FBI Office, and the Department of Justice declined to comment beyond the affidavit. FBI spokeswoman Carol Cratty hung up on The Daily Beast after being asked about the “tear up Texas” text.
But shortly after that exchange, Simpson and his accomplice, Nadir Soofi, drove up to the contest and opened fire on police officers, injuring one of them slightly. Both men were killed in the altercation, but Hendricks would remain free for another year.
Hendricks’s arrest means that every major U.S. attack was linked to FBI investigation before it happened, Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told The Daily Beast.
“The fact that they had an undercover employee already, and had him there, that tells me that’s something they were concerned about,” he said.
A cooperating witness, arrested in June 2015 on terrorism charges in Ohio, helped build the case against Hendricks. Though he is not identified in the affidavit by name, the only person who matches the description in the documents is Amir Said Abdul Rahman Al-Ghazi, previously known as Robert McCollum. Like the cooperating witness mentioned in the affidavit, Al-Ghazi was arrested on terrorism, weapons, and drug charges in June of that year. And, like the cooperating witness, Al-Ghazi pleaded guilty to material support for a terrorist organization and two charges of being a felon in possession of firearms.
Though Hendricks was charged on Thursday, the allegations against him focus on March 1, 2015 to May 31, 2015, just before McCollum’s arrest.
Hendricks also went by “Mustafa” and “Abu Harb” (“Father of War”), according to the affidavit—aliases he used in the process of allegedly trying to recruit McCollum for his ISIS cell.
When McCollum was arrested, agents asked him whether he knew anyone who had been talking about the Garland attack.
“Fuck. I didn’t know about Garland before it happened but a brother had contacted me,” McCollum said. “His name on [the messaging app] was Abu Harb.”
Then, McCollum said, Hendricks admonished him for selling pot.
Despite his paranoia of government surveillance, Hendricks ended up interacting with a number of FBI informants and staff through their investigation of McCollum. Among the tips he allegedly gave them was to “split” Islamic references to throw off the feds.
“[T]he moo ja hid guide,” Hendricks wrote to one informant, in an apparent effort to avoid writing out the term “mujahid,” or holy warrior.
Hendricks allegedly claimed that ISIS asked him to stay and plan attacks in America, and that he had 10 men and women in his group.
“Hij rah is not what senior people requested me,” he allegedly texted an undercover agent, “splitting” the Arabic word for migration.
Instead, Hendricks allegedly planned to build a “secure compound for training” and to steal weapons from military compounds and recruiting stations in the middle of the night. What he didn’t realize was that some of the men he thought were his fellow jihadists had a very different mission in mind—one on Washington’s behalf.