U.S. war on terror focuses on new battlefield: the Internet

Weakened enemy going online to recruit homegrown terrorists

  • Craig Baxam
Craig Baxam (Yearbook photo )
January 14, 2012|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

A Woodlawn man watches online videos of Osama bin Laden, posts about jihad on his Facebook page, and — according to federal prosecutors — agrees to a plot to detonate a bomb at a military recruiting center in Catonsville.

An Ellicott City teen is accused of using the Internet to solicit volunteers and money for a jihadist war in South Asia and Europe.

A former Army private from Laurel comes across an Islamic website, becomes a Muslim and makes plans to join a State Department-designated terrorist group in Somalia so he can live under Sharia law.

That soldier, Craig Benedict Baxam, is the most recent Marylander accused of finding his way to Islamic extremism online. He was charged last week by federal authorities with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

A besieged al-Qaida, weakened by 10 years of war, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the removal of other top leaders, is now focusing much of its attention on inspiring recruits in the United States and elsewhere to carry out attacks that the terror group itself might no longer be capable of mounting.

The United States, meanwhile, is moving to counter the potential appeal of the jihadist pitch.

The FBI is monitoring Islamist websites and chat rooms. The State Department is logging on to online forums, blogs and social-networking sites to rebut what officials call "the extremist narrative."

And the White House released last month a first-ever strategic plan to fight homegrown terrorism. The plan seeks closer relations with local communities seen by organized terrorists as recruiting grounds, to help them build resilience against members becoming radicalized — and to encourage their cooperation with law enforcement.

Terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross called it "the softer side of counterterrorism."

"It's a question of, how do you relate to communities without antagonizing them?" said Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. "Where you have extremism, how do you promote new engagement rather than ideas being tucked away until they become more radical and manifest themselves in some sort of violence?"

It is unclear what impact such efforts might have had on Baxam.

The 24-year-old former soldier, who converted to Islam shortly before he left the Army last summer, was arrested in Kenya last month as he made his way to Somalia, where he hoped to join al-Shabaab and live under its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

The State Department declared al-Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization in 2008. Officials say the al-Qaida-linked group is responsible for suicide bombings, assassinations and other attacks on the Somali government, community leaders, aid workers, peace activists and journalists.

According to prosecutors, Baxam told FBI agents that the world is at war with Islam and that if the United States attacked al-Shabaab, he would take up arms to defend it. He was "looking for dying with a gun in my hand," he reportedly told the agents, and believed it would guarantee him a place in paradise.

His court-appointed public defender says Baxam wanted only to live his life in a new land, according to his new religion.

Federal public defender John C. Chamble described the 2005 Laurel High School graduate as "naive" and "impulsive," but said any comments Baxam made about defending al-Shabaab or taking up arms came in response to leading questions by the FBI agents who interviewed him.

Baxam is not accused of planning an attack in or against the United States. There is no evidence that he was recruited by al-Shabaab or had any contact with that group or anyone else about his plan.

But elements of his case, including his online study and conversion to Islam, recalled Antonio Martinez, the Woodlawn man charged in December 2010 with attempting to set off a bomb at the Armed Forces Career Center on Baltimore National Pike in Catonsville.

The dummy device that Martinez is accused of trying to detonate in the strip mall parking lot had been given to him by undercover FBI agents. They had monitored his Facebook musings about Islam and jihad after receiving a tip from an informant he allegedly tried to recruit.

Martinez, who adopted the name Muhammad Hussain, pleaded not guilty last year. He is scheduled for rearraignment on Wednesday, when he could enter a new plea.

Mohammad Hassan Khalid, a Pakistani teen who grew up in Ellicott City, was indicted last year on charges of providing material support to terrorists.

Khalid, 18, is accused of using the Internet to help create a "a violent jihad organization." Authorities say he worked with the suburban Philadelphia woman known as "Jihad Jane" to recruit Americans and Europeans who would be divided into teams and assigned tasks that included planning, research, finance and action.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.