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Former soldier charged with trying to aid terrorist group

GREENBELT — A Maryland man who converted to Islam shortly before leaving the U.S. Army and who found living an Islamic way of life in the United States oppressive has been charged with attempting to join a foreign terrorist organization in Somalia, authorities said Monday.

Craig Baxam of Laurel was arrested Friday and charged with attempting to provide material support to al-Shabaab by joining its ranks in Somalia.

Baxam, 24, wore a long white tunic to his first appearance in court Monday. When asked by a judge if he understood the charge against him, he said yes. Baxam faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. A hearing was set for Wednesday.

According to a court document, Baxam joined the Army in 2007 and attended eight months of advanced individual training for cryptology and intelligence. He was stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., and served in Baghdad and Korea.

Though he previously had no religious affiliation, he began reading about Islam on a website less than two weeks before leaving the Army in July 2011, according to the document. The document says Baxam kept his conversion a secret, but his roommate figured it out because he saw Baxam’s prayer rug and books.

After leaving the Army, Baxam is said to have spent time reading and praying, and he considered it his duty to go live in a place governed by Islamic law. He left the United States in December, flying out of Baltimore, and was arrested in Kenya, allegedly on his way to neighboring Somalia. Kenyan authorities suspected he was traveling to Somalia to join al-Shabaab. He was allegedly carrying with him between $600 and $700 he intended to give to al-Shabaab. Baxam was interviewed by FBI agents in Kenya and arrested on his return to Maryland.

When FBI agents interviewing him asked what he thought his role would be with al-Shabaab, he said “he would just be another body there.” He also allegedly said he was “looking for dying with a gun in my hand.”

He told FBI agents that living an Islamic way of life in the United States is oppressive, and that to live as a Muslim in the United States a person has to compromise. He said he finds the constant playing of music and display of pictures in the U.S. disrespectful.

Before leaving the U.S., Baxam allegedly destroyed his computer and threw it in the trash because he did not want to leave a record of his activities.

Reached by telephone on Monday, Baxam’s father declined to comment and said he was undergoing dialysis. The court document charging Baxam says he told officials that if he were released he would take care of his dying father and, if his father should die, he would then try to join al-Shabaab again.

Baxam’s mother, an attorney, also attended his court hearing Monday but declined comment, as did John Chamble, a lawyer appointed for Baxam by the court.