Don Morgan, a 44-year-old Catholic-born North Carolina native, told NBC News he tried to enter Syria through Turkey but was turned away at the airport in Istanbul.
“My reason for the support of ISIL is because they’ve proven time and time again to put Islamic law as the priority and the establishment of an Islamic state as the goal,” Morgan said in an interview from Beirut before returning to the United States on Aug. 2, when he was arrested on a weapons charge.
At a court hearing in Brooklyn on Aug. 4 after an arrest at JFK, the FBI said it was aware of Morgan’s support for ISIS, but the arrest was for his attempt as a convicted felon to sell a rifle online, and was not unrelated to terrorism.
After being transferred back to Greensboro, N.C., Morgan pleaded not guilty on Thursday, the Greensboro News & Record reported.
“I would not classify myself as a radical, but by Western definition I would be classified as a radical,” Morgan said in the NBC interview. “I just consider myself to be a practicing Muslim.”
“My entire life growing up was surrounded by the idea that I would be 82nd Airborne, I would be Special Forces, I would serve dutifully — duty, honor and country,” Morgan said. “I thought that I would make [law enforcement] my substitution for what I thought was going to be, in the beginning, a military career, an achievement, leadership.”
According to NBC, he was fired as a sheriff’s deputy just a year and a half on the job. Morgan says his life then spiraled out of control and he spent two years in prison for firing a gun during a fight in a restaurant. After that, he became an amateur bodybuilding.
NBC reported that Morgan converted to Islam in 2008 but didn’t become a practicing Muslim until 2012:
“At some point you have to make a commitment,” he said. “It was … right before Ramadan that my life changed. And what changed that was me making the decision to practice what I preach.”
According to one friend, Morgan’s Facebook posts became more “extreme” (“Derogatory statements toward Israel, some statements about infidels — things like that,” one friend told NBC). He grew a beard, shaved his head and began using the Twitter handle Abu Omar al-Amreeki and tweeting his support of ISIL.
“To the brothers inside Syria and Iraq be humble and grateful,” one of his tweets read, according to the Daily Beast. “Many of us are trying to come as some are arrested and others delayed.”
In January, Morgan traveled to Lebanon. In June, he pledged his allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and began planning his trip to Syria.
“After a considerable amount of prayer and planning everything through, I began to dissolve my effects in the U.S., personal property, items that I owned,” Morgan said. “I began to set up things that would protect those that I was leaving behind and then, after all of that, I purchased the ticket with the intent of entering to Syria, either joining up with medical and food aid convoys or directly with Islamic State.”