Seven-year sentence for Laurel man who tried to join up with al-Shabaab terrorist group

A 26-year-old Laurel man was sentenced Monday to seven years in prison after he admitted traveling to Africa to try to join the terrorist group al-Shabab and trashing his home computer so federal investigators could not track him, authorities said.

Craig Baxam was arrested by Kenyan authorities in December 2011, and he soon told FBI agents of his haphazard plan to elude them and connect with al-Shabab because he wanted to live somewhere that rigorously adhered to sharia, or Islamic, law, court papers say. He pleaded guilty to a charge of destroying records that might be used in a terrorism investigation and received the seven-year sentence as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors, authorities said.

Federal investigators have long worked to root out so-called homegrown terror suspects, and Special Agent Stephen E. Vogt, who heads the FBI’s Baltimore division, said in a statement that Baxam’s case “highlights the FBI’s highest investigative priority, the prevention of terrorist acts.” But the resolution of the case seems to demonstrate that Baxam did not precisely fit the bill of a would-be terrorist.

Baxam was not convicted of the initial charge of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization, and his attorney, Linda Moreno, said he never advocated specific violence, nor did he procure weapons or attend any terrorist training camps.

A 2005 graduate of Laurel High School who was born in Takoma Park, Baxam had experience in the Army and admitted to investigators that he was willing to commit violence, according to the criminal complaint against him. But he said that he felt offensive jihad was questionable, and his main use for violence would be to defend al-Shabab’s Somali territories from potential invaders, according to the complaint.

Moreno said that the violence he spoke of was only hypothetical, “based on interviews with the FBI where the FBI asked him what if this happened, what if that happened, what if the following.”

“Craig wanted to live and practice his religion in a country where he felt that Muslims were not oppressed,” Moreno said. “This was not a terrorism case.”

Baxam’s ultimate plea was based largely on his efforts to avoid detection. He admitted as part of the agreement that he destroyed his home computer because he knew the U.S. government could trace IP addresses, and he did not want to leave any records behind as he left for Africa. He also admitted buying a round-trip ticket — as opposed to a one-way ticket — so as not to arouse suspicion.

Baxam’s plan to reach al-Shabab, though, was something less than ironclad. He set out with only a Koran and some other religious texts, a prayer mat, towel and razors, according to the complaint. He carried about $700 in cash, according to the complaint.

After making his way to Mombasa, then Malindi, Baxam told a taxi driver to take him “as far north as possible” in Kenya, according to the complaint. Dropped off in a city whose name he could not recall, he tried to take a bus to the northern city of Garissa, according to the complaint. He was arrested on that bus by Kenyan police, who suspected that he was trying to travel to Somalia, according to the complaint.

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Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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