Police could make arrests based on threats, but Ward, a retired 27-year veteran of the Maryland State Police, said it's much better to catch someone with his finger on the trigger — even on the trigger of a bomb that authorities know won't go off.
"They are making a better case while still preventing the act," he said. "If somebody says he intends to blow up a building, was that true or just somebody mouthing off? The more you have, the easier it is for a jury to determine true intent. … Is it just words or is it words and deeds?"
The criminal complaint in U.S. District Court in Baltimore alleges that Martinez had been actively seeking to wage violence. At one point, the court documents say, his mother called him to voice her displeasure at how he was living.
"She wants me to be like everybody else, being in school, working," Martinez told the informant, according to the court document. "For me it's different. I have this zeal … and she doesn't understand that. My wife understands. … I told her when [we] first married … I told her I want to fight Jihad."
Court papers say Martinez tried to get three friends to join him on his quest but all turned him down, and his brother-in-law, in Facebook postings, made a futile attempt to calm his language. The undercover FBI agent repeatedly questioned Martinez on whether he really wanted to attack Americans.
In one instance, the agent advised that "as a Muslim, he could not ask Martinez to do something he did not want to do, so he needed Martinez to tell him what it was he believed and wanted, and what was in his heart." He told Martinez he had to act for himself, and not do anything for friends.
At another point, the agent "reminded Martinez again that if he wanted to 'do something, I can help you. And if you don't wanna do anything, that's fine. I don't lose anything,'" the court documents say.
According to the FBI, the suspect answered: "All I know is that I have found one brother that I can trust. I'm ready." Prosecutors said the conversation then turned to how to build a car bomb.
Susanne Brody, a federal public defender in New York who represented one of four defendants recently convicted in a plot to bomb Bronx synagogues, generally questioned the tactics of the FBI. In her case, she argued that undercover agents brought together four people who didn't know each other, and paid and directed an operation concocted by federal agents.
In an interview Thursday, Brody accused the FBI of "taking uneducated people and turning them into terrorists. If not for the FBI, my people would be still on the street in Newburgh [N.Y.] selling marijuana, which is what they do for a living."
Legal experts say the issue comes down to semantics and the nuances of conversation. If a suspect says he wants to kill someone or blow something up, authorities appear to have wide latitude in nurturing those ideas.
But if an agent or informant plants the violent idea in the suspect's head, a prosecution is more problematic. In the Maryland case, it's not yet clear what the informant told Martinez in the few days spanning his vague Facebook statements about a "reign of oppression" and his reputed goal of attacking military recruitment centers.
But it also seems clear from Martinez's statements caught on FBI tape, Internet postings and even conversations with relatives that he had no intention of backing away from the attack.
The court documents say he repeatedly talked about killings and watched videos of terror attacks.
Four days before he was to detonate the bomb in Catonsville, documents say, the FBI informant asked Martinez how he was feeling. He answered that he was "ready … happy, anxious, just ready."
Then, the court documents say, he assured the informant that he did not feel pressured. "I came to you about this, brother," Martinez reportedly said.
Ward, the director of the Johns Hopkins police leadership program, said that people who plot violent acts but are incapable of executing the plan are eventually "going to find somebody who can help. It's incumbent on law enforcement to stop it before it happens."