Just a few weeks ago a Catholic-born, American man –- a former military school student, special forces aspirant, law enforcement officer and bodybuilder -- set off on a path far from any he’d envisioned for himself as a kid in North Carolina: on the other side of the world, in Lebanon, he was trying to figure out how to get into Syria and join ISIS, the most radical, bloodthirsty terrorist group of our times.
Don Morgan, 44, said he was answering a higher calling.
“It was months and months and months of asking Allah to guide me or to give me the answers I needed,” he told NBC News in an exclusive interview this summer in Beirut.
Morgan answered our questions on camera as asked by a freelance journalist. Morgan believed U.S. and other law enforcement agencies were already on his trail. He said he knew his desire to join ISIS would likely get him into trouble with American authorities.
The factors that drove Morgan to embrace the ideology of the terror group responsible for beheading two American journalists and killing thousands in Syria and Iraq appear to be rooted in more than faith, based on the extensive conversation with Morgan himself and some of those who know him. Personal disappointments and desires and exposure to increasingly radical social media also contributed to Morgan's actions.
Most crucial in Morgan’s case may have been the order and discipline that he says he found in practicing Islam –and in ISIS’s interpretation of the Muslim faith and its determination to spread it in the form of a caliphate.
“My reason for the support of ISIS 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 told NBC News.
So in place of the order of a military life, this southern son turned to a different, brutal, terrifying kind of discipline and belonging.
‘A practicing Muslim’
Just days after Morgan spoke to NBC News, he was picked up by U.S. officials at JFK airport in New York City. He was arrested not for links to terrorism, however, but on a weapons charge: he’s accused of trying to sell a rifle online. Morgan had previously been convicted of a felony, so it’s illegal for him to possess a gun. An FBI agent testified at a court hearing in Brooklyn that investigators had been following his on-line statements of support for ISIS and his desire to join the group. Morgan pleaded not guilty.
“I think [if I go back to the US] there’s a strong possibility that they’ll charge me with supporting terrorist organizations and with supporting terrorist activities,” Morgan had said.
But Morgan does not view himself as a terrorist. “I would not classify myself as a radical, but by western definition I would be classified as a radical,” he said. “I just consider myself to be a practicing Muslim.”
Morgan’s commitment to Islam has taken different forms over the years. Morgan said he was first exposed to the religion as a university student in a course called “Contemporary Islam.” But he didn’t actually convert until some years later, after failing to complete the boot camp that would have allowed him to deploy with the National Guard to Kuwait during Desert Storm. He then found out that local law enforcement, where he served as a sheriff’s deputy, was not the brotherhood he sought either.
“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. Later, “I thought that I would make this [law enforcement] my substitution for what I thought was going to be, in the beginning, a military career, an achievement, leadership,” he said. Yet after a year and a half, his deputy job was terminated. An official at the sheriff’s office would not give NBC News a reason for the termination.
Morgan describes spiraling out of control after these twin disappointments – drinking, fighting, partying. He ultimately spent just over two years in prison after a melee in which he fired a pistol into a crowded restaurant.
Upon release, as he looked for some structure to his life, he found work as a finance manager in the auto business in Salisbury, North Carolina, and threw himself into amateur bodybuilding.
“He took it very seriously,” Quincy Roberts, his coach at the time, told NBC News. “Everything I told him to do, he took it very seriously.”
In 1999, Morgan married another bodybuilder, Tangela Horne and, in 2001, they had a son together. Morgan and Tangela were well known in the small community of bodybuilders. But the marriage didn’t last. They divorced in 2007.
A year later, Morgan converted to Islam.
He realized, he said, that “Islam presented this package that said: ‘this is, this is it…this is the path and this is the way you’re going to go. There is not going to be this way, that way.’”
At first, Morgan said, his faith wasn’t a major factor in his life.
“If you would have met me in the street and you would have said ‘hey I’m Catholic, what are you?’ I would have said ‘I’m a Muslim,’ but was I praying? I wasn’t. Did I even know how to pray? Not at all.”
But he said he underwent a dramatic transformation in 2012, when he realized "that at some point you have to make a commitment.” His faith quickly became all-consuming.
“It was… right before Ramadan that my life changed. And what changed that was me making the decision to practice what I preach,” Morgan said.
Around this time, Morgan was closely following the wars in the Middle East and began posting Islamist statements on his Facebook page. Bryan Beaver, who worked with Morgan in the auto sales business and has known him on and off for 15 years, noted the activity.
“(Morgan’s) Facebook posts were a bit extreme at times, and there were some volatile statements in there. Some things that he would say that would make me think, ‘you know this guy was going to the extreme with this,’” Beaver said. “Derogatory statements toward Israel, some statements about infidels. Things like that.”
Morgan stopped bodybuilding and began to spend less time at the gym, according to some who used to work out with him. He only worked out at odd hours, and kept mostly to himself. And he changed his appearance: Morgan grew a beard, shaved his head and donned a skull cap. And he founded an Islamic Center in a small building not far from downtown Salisbury. The center's Facebook page shows Morgan posing with apparent members of the community.
In January, Morgan traveled to Lebanon and remained there through July. He began to use the handle Abu Omar al-Amreeki on Twitter, describing himself as a mujahid, or holy warrior. He made contacts with members through social media who he said ‘vetted’ him and advised him how to cross the border.
On June 29, 2014 he wrote "officially” pledge his allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In subsequent postings, he retweeted photos and videos praising al-Baghdadi. He described himself as "Mujahid pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi and Islamic state commanding good and forbidding evil."
He wrote, "To brothers in Iraq, be patient. Many of us trying to come." ... "Allah, you brought me here and I need to take rest of my journey to join the most beautiful brothers on earth" ... "Give me martyrdom, wherever I may be"
When NBC News interviewed Morgan in Lebanon this summer, he said he'd already tried to enter Syria through Turkey, but was stopped at the airport in Istanbul.
“It was planned” he said of his attempt. "I mean, 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…. 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.”
Morgan said after Turkey turned him away, he was looking at other ways to get into Syria. But at the time we interviewed him, he was low on money. This may be why, after our interview, he returned to the United States. He knew it would be risky.
At a detention hearing after Morgan was arrested in New York, prosecutors mentioned the tweets and suggested that he was dangerous. Morgan’s lawyer argued that, while his client expressed support for ISIS, and even talked about planning to go to Syria to join the group, he never actually went through with it.
Our interview and reporting suggest that it was not for lack of trying.