The Mystery of Donald Ray Morgan, the 44-Year-Old American Who Loved ISIS
How could a grown man from North Carolina end up swearing allegiance to what are not just the bad guys but the very worst guys around? Inside the arrest of a former bodybuilding champ.
The last two Americans arrested for associating with ISIS had been a 19-year-old Colorado girl arrested as she set off to marry a jihadi in Syria she had met via Skype and a 20-year-old California boy charged with passport fraud after he reported his was lost when his mother had really hidden it to keep him from flying away to become a martyr.
But the most recent avowed supporter of the terrorist group to get busted was not some dizzy kid living out a late adolescent fantasy. He was a 44-year-old man from North Carolina who had done time in prison and had once been a bodybuilding champion.
As was first reported by the New York Daily News, Donald Ray Morgan was arrested at JFK Airport on August 2 as he returned from Lebanon, where he had been living since January with his second wife.
The charge against Morgan involved the sale of a rifle listed with an online gun marketplace called the Carolina Shooters Club. Morgan is a convicted felon and therefore barred from possessing firearms.
But what had brought him to the attention of federal investigators were his tweets as Abu Omar al Amreeki, including one from June 29 that features a photo of him declaring fealty to the head of ISIS.
“Mujahid pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Islamic State commanding good and forbidding evil,” it reads.
Morgan also retweeted a video of al-Baghdadi. Another tweet led investigators to believe that Morgan was planning to join the fight:
“To the brothers inside Syria and Iraq be humble and grateful many of us are trying to come as some are arrested and others delayed.”
A subsequent tweet seemed to confirm that suspicion:
“Allah you brought me here and I need the rest of my journey to join the ranks with the most beautiful brothers on Earth.
“Allah, give me martyrdom wherever I may be.”
In another tweet, Morgan appears to urge like-minded would-be jihadis not to lose their nerve:
“When that door opens to sacrifice for Allah will you walk through?”
Morgan says all this having viewed and retweeted some of the more ghastly ISIS pictures of beheadings and mass executions, brutality that offends even senior members of al Qaeda. He at one point retweets some ISIS humor:
“Welcome to Jihadi Marriage Bureau - We help American girls find new husbands by making them widows!”
And then there was that ISIS prank during the World Cup, when some of its thugs posted a video of themselves playing soccer with severed heads.
As apparently approving as Morgan is of ISIS atrocities, he expresses deep outrage at the Israeli onslaught in Gaza that has killed so many civilians. He registers disappointment during the first phase of the conflict that no Israeli civilians have been killed:
“Let’s gets some quality rockets to hamas bc these ones aren’t hitting and destroying anything. Over 1000 & no deaths?”
He is disappointed by a ceasefire on July 14:
“honestly can we not kill one piece of crap Zionist?”
At one point, Morgan posted a photo of 22-year-old Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a fellow American who had slipped into Syria to wage jihad and managed to return home for a time without the notice of U.S. authorities. He then had headed undetected back to Syria, where he died perpetrating a suicide bombing in May.
If those who are sworn to protect us overlooked Abusalha, at least they took notice of Morgan.
Investigators discovered that Morgan had served two years in prison after a 1997 conviction for discharging a firearm in an occupied building in Rowan County, North Carolina. Investigators also noted that Morgan subsequently put a series of guns up for sale via Carolina Shooters Club, going under the screen name Dmorgan080110 but calling himself Don in the ad and listing his real phone number.
He managed to sell a Chinese-made AK-47 for $700 in 2012, but he apparently had trouble peddling a $2,200 German HK91 rifle, even though he offered two full clips of ammo and two spare magazines.
When an undercover ATF agent posed as an interested buyer, Morgan allegedly arranged from Lebanon for the sale to be handled by his ex-wife, who in better days had become a bodybuilding champion with him. A Morgan pal was present at the transaction and is said to have texted with him using the cost-saving app Viber.
The ex-wife was accused of no wrongdoing, especially after she produced a shotgun that she said also belonged to Morgan.
In May, Morgan was indicted on a gun charge. He was arrested as he came off Delta Flight 107 from Frankfurt to New York. He was then taken to the federal building in Manhattan and questioned for two hours by Special Agent J.L. Pickford of the Charlotte, North Carolina, division of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.
As recounted in a subsequent detention hearing, the agent began by asking Morgan about the guns. The questions next turned to jihad, and the agent asked Morgan if he knew of anybody who was traveling through Lebanon to Syria to fight. Morgan replied that only a Shiite could get through there.
The agent then asked the question of paramount importance to America.
Did Morgan know of any fighters who were seeking to return from Syria to the U.S.?
Morgan again said he did not. The agent engaged Morgan in what was ostensibly a discussion of jihad. The agent was actually seeking to get Morgan to admit that he in some way had supported ISIS in some material way and intended to go fight in its ranks. Morgan continued to answer in the emphatic negative.
The agent asked Morgan why he had returned home. Morgan replied that he had come back to make money and spend time with his son. Morgan had heard that his ex-wife had taken the boy to church. Morgan said he wanted him to grow up as a Muslim.
At the subsequent detention hearing, Morgan’s attorney, chief Brooklyn federal defender Peter Kirchheimer, contended, “The fact that my client believes in or hopes for the existence of a caliphate in which sharia law will rule is his perfect right.”
The attorney asked the agent if pledging allegiance to the head of ISIS is a crime.
“It depends how you can take his pledge,” the agent said. “I don’t have any evidence that he is currently a member [of ISIS] except that he’s pledging allegiance to it.”
The attorney asked, “Can you give me one example of one act that he committed to help ISIS? Like give somebody money, a plane ticket, how to shoot a gun?”
The agent said, “Not to my knowledge.”
The agent added, “He also indicated…that he was aware of how these interviews go and he would not in any way do anything to incriminate himself.”
The agent went a step too far in suggesting that Morgan’s penny ante gun dealing suggested he might be providing weapons to ISIS.
ISIS hardly has need of a couple of AK-47s and sniper rifles after acquiring untold quantities of abandoned weapons that we had provided to the Iraqi army.
The attorney maintained that Morgan’s beliefs did not make him a danger. The agent maintained that at least one of the tweets “implies to me an interest in trying to travel to Syria.”
The judge, Ramon Reyes, agreed about the tweet.
“That implies clearly to me that he is trying to go to Syria or Iraq,” the judge said. “I believe this is going to be the next step and trying to be actively engaged.”
Morgan was remanded and on Monday he was on his way back to North Carolina, where he was once a bodybuilding champion.
The ongoing mystery is how a grown person could have ended up swearing allegiance to what are not just the bad guys but the very worst guys around.
Too bad Morgan got collared when he did. He missed out on retweeting the photos of dead and dying American soldiers that ISIS posted over the weekend.
And then there was the picture an Australian jihadi posted of his 7-year-old son holding up the severed head of a Syrian solider.
That is one a true ISIS supporter would have to love.