Craig Baxam (Yearbook photo )
Craig Benedict Baxam was surfing the Internet from his Army base in South Korea last summer when he came across an Islamic religious website.
The soldier from Laurel had never been particularly religious. But with his deployment and his time in the military coming to an end, prosecutors say, an online article about Judgment Day spoke to him. When he returned to Maryland, they say, he began to make plans to live out his life in a land governed by Sharia law.
He would never make it.
Baxam, 24, was charged by federal authorities Monday with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. The 2005 Laurel High School graduate is accused of trying to join al-Shabaab, the State Department-designated terrorist group that opposes the embattled transitional government in war-torn Somalia.
Baxam was detained by police in Kenya as he neared the Somali border last month. He was interviewed by FBI agents in Nairobi and arrested on his return to Maryland last week.
Baxam sat mostly quietly through an initial appearance Monday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. Wearing a long white robe, a thick black beard and sandals, he spoke only to affirm that he understood the charge against him, that it carries a maximum sentence of 15 years and that he has the rights to remain silent and to be represented by counsel, answering each time with a simple "yes."
Magistrate Judge William Connelly ordered Baxam held until a bail hearing Wednesday. Baxam's court-appointed attorney declined to comment after the brief appearance, as did two women who appeared to be family members.
In an affidavit filed earlier Monday, FBI Special Agent John B. Phillips III said Baxam considered it his duty to undertake his hijra, or migration to a Muslim land.
The way Baxam saw it, according to Phillips, this meant just a few options: the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, a few islands in the Philippines or southern Somalia.
Phillips said Baxam was carrying between $600 and $700 when he was pulled off a bus and arrested outside Mombasa, Kenya. He said Baxam planned to offer the money to al-Shabaab, to join the group and to take up arms to defend it from the United States, if necessary.
According to Phillips, Baxam spoke freely with FBI agents while in Kenyan custody, and signed forms waiving his right to have an attorney present.
Baxam's principal at Laurel High School remembered him Monday as a "pretty good" student who had neither a stellar record nor a bad one. Principal Dwayne Jones said Baxam participated at least one year on the school's academic team, which competed in quiz contests against other schools.
In the 2005 yearbook, Baxam indicated an interest in pursuing a career in health care.
He joined the Army in 2007 and completed eight months of advanced training in cryptology and intelligence at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas. He joined the 18th Airborne Corps in Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2008 and deployed to Iraq.
On his return, he re-enlisted, joined the 2nd Infantry Division and deployed in 2010 for a one-year assignment at Camp Red Cloud, an Army base located between Seoul and the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea.
Phillips said Baxam converted to Islam only days before his separation from the Army and had kept his new faith "secret." He was afraid to search for al-Shabaab from his home computer, Phillips said, "because he is aware of the capabilities of the United States government."
Phillips said Baxam cashed out his retirement savings of about $3,500 and purchased a plane ticket to Nairobi, Kenya. Although he had no plans to return, Phillips said, he purchased a round-trip ticket to avoid arousing suspicion.
Before Baxam left, Phillips said, he destroyed his computer.
Baxam flew from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on Dec. 20, had a layover in London and arrived in Nairobi on Dec. 22, Phillips said. After attending morning prayers at a mosque, he set out on a series of bus and taxi rides in an effort to travel "as far north as possible."
Baxam attempted to maintain a low profile while traveling, Phillips said, speaking with others only as necessary. But when a man on a bus began asking questions — "Where are you going?" "Do you speak the local language?" "Do you have family here?" — Baxam opened up.
The man left the bus. It was soon stopped by Kenyan police, who took Baxam into custody.
Baxam now believes the man was an informant, according to Phillips. Baxam was held at the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit in Nairobi.
In court on Monday, Baxam's attorney objected to court papers that accused Baxam of engaging in terrorist activity. Baxam is charged with attempting to provide material support and resources to al-Shabaab.
"My concern, your honor, is that this case not be blown out of proportion," attorney John Chamble told Connelly.
Connelly directed that the paperwork be corrected to reflect the charge.