A former American soldier with specialist intelligence and cryptology training has been charged with trying to join Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab militants, US justice officials said Monday.
Craig Baxam, a 24-year-old from the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, appeared briefly in court Monday near the US capital to hear charges that he attempted to join -- and provide material support to -- a terrorist group.
Baxam, who served in Iraq and South Korea, was apprehended on December 23 aboard a bus near the Kenyan city of Mombasa with ê600 to ê700 in cash that he intended to give the Shebab as an introductory offer, prosecutors said.
Baxam allegedly told FBI officers he wanted to die fighting for the Shebab "with a gun in my hand," and replied "that is awesome" when informed that the militant group encouraged beating people who did not attend prayers.
Counter-terrorism experts have expressed growing concern about a steady stream of recruits, many of them British, making their way to Somalia to join the Shebab.
An extremist accused of heading a wave of British recruits to the Shebab was arrested four days before Baxam in Mombasa.
Baxam, who joined the US military in 2007, was deployed to Baghdad shortly after finishing eight months of advanced training for cryptology and intelligence.
He returned home after his Iraq deployment and then re-enlisted before being deployed to South Korea for one year beginning in August 2010.
According to court documents, it was in South Korea that he secretly converted to Islam after visiting an extremist website, quitting the army days later and returning to the United States in mid-2011.
"One evening, Baxam was surfing the Internet and came across a named Islamic religious website," the affidavit said.
"An article therein about the Day of Judgment spoke to Baxam. Baxam read more and immediately realized that Islam was the truth. He wanted to read more about Islam and the more he read, the more he wanted," it said.
"Baxam's conversion was in secret, except that his roommate in the army eventually figured it out because he saw Baxam's prayer rug and books."
The fresh convert struggled to adjust to life back home, residing with his father in Maryland and briefly working for a television services company.
"Baxam said that living an Islamic way of life in the United States is oppressive," prosecutors said. "To live as a Muslim in the United States you need to compromise. He finds the constant playing of music and constant display of pictures disrespectful. Only Allah can create images."
After considering Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and parts of the southern Philippines under the control of Muslim rebels, he decided on Somalia and the Shebab, prosecutors said.
He cashed in his army savings and bought a plane ticket to Nairobi -- a round-trip so as not to arouse suspicion.
Baxam arrived in Nairobi on December 22 and caught a night bus to Mombasa, where he was arrested the following day as he made for the Somali border.
"His plan was to cross the border and find the first mosque. That mosque would be a Shebab mosque," prosecutors said.
Baxam was questioned by Kenyan anti-terrorism police and the FBI in Nairobi before being put on a plane back to the United States to stand trial.
He is to appear again in court on Wednesday. If found guilty, he faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison followed by three years of supervised release.
The Shebab has long sought to recruit Westerners to join the bloody uprising it launched in 2007 against the Western-backed transitional government.
The Islamic militants lost a key source of finance when they pulled out of fixed positions in the capital Mogadishu last August, switching to guerrilla attacks on African Union-backed forces there.
Now the extremist fighters largely rely for funding on the southern port of Kismayo and the charcoal trade, both of which are under pressure from Kenyan forces who crossed into southern Somalia to attack them in October.