Would-be Catonsville bomber sentenced to 25 years in prison

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Antonio Martinez renounced terrorism and expressed regret Friday for trying to blow up a Catonsville military center, shortly before he was sentenced to 25 years in prison — closing a case that brought a radical holy war to Maryland.

Prosecutors suggested Martinez's turnaround was insincere. Materials indicating his continuing connection to terrorist beliefs were seized recently from the 22-year-old's cell, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Manuelian.

He appears to still have a "mindset" of wanting to kill in the name of religion, more than a year after the failed attack, Manuelian said at the sentencing hearing. A hand-drawn banner depicting crossed swords and an AK-47 assault rifle was found in his cell on Jan. 31, according to court records.

A photograph of the banner, made by Martinez, was made public Friday. It's drawn on what appears to be a white cloth, and includes excerpts from the Quran written in Arabic.

Martinez, also known as Muhammad Hussain, translated the passage on the lower-left corner of the banner, writing, "those who belive [sic], and emigrate and strive with might and main, in Allahs cause, with their goods and their persons, have the highest rank in the sight of Allah they are people who will achieve salvation."

Said Manuelian: "The public needs to be protected from any further crimes" Martinez would commit because of his beliefs.

Martinez agreed to the 25-year term as part of a deal made in January, when he pleaded guilty to attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. The vehicle bomb he tried to activate in December 2010 was fake, supplied by undercover FBI agents who began investigating him two months earlier based on statements he made on Facebook.

He is said to have glorified jihad, which is often interpreted as a Muslim holy war. And he wrote in one post on September 2010, that "the sword is cummin [and] the reign of oppression is about 2 cease."

Martinez, who lived at addresses in Gwynn Oak and Windsor Mill, is among a handful of Marylanders accused of using the Internet to develop and spread violent beliefs, offer terrorist services and recruit like-minded volunteers for so-called holy war.

In other cases, a former Army private from Laurel was federally charged this year with attempting to aid a foreign terrorist organization after a website supposedly drew him to radical Islam. And an Ellicott City teen is due in federal court in Philadelphia this month for a change-of-plea hearing related to allegations that he conspired to help terrorists. The boy, Mohammad Hassan Khalid, is accused of raising money online to fund jihad in South Asia and Europe; he previously pleaded not guilty.

Federal agents regularly monitor social-networking sites and other Web pages for hints of unrest, making undercover contact with potential terrorists and, increasingly, supplying the suspects with phony weaponry to carry out their plots. In Martinez's case, an undercover agent passed himself off as an "Afghan brother" and provided a dummy vehicle bomb that the young man attempted to detonate. It's a tactic that has also been used in Oregon, Illinois and Washington.

In court Friday, Martinez's attorney, Deputy Federal Public Defender Joseph A. Balter, suggested that the bomb plot could have been avoided if agents had counseled Martinez against it, rather than encouraging him during the investigation. Balter previously argued that the FBI entrapped his client, but Martinez agreed to drop those claims during his plea hearing this winter.

But U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz said it was "not the job of the FBI or law enforcement authorities to try and lead moderation. That's the responsibility of the rest of us, including the Muslim community."

Balter said at the hearing that Martinez was raised with a strong religious background but struggled with his conscience and discipline as an adolescent, experimenting with alcohol, drugs and meaningless relationships. He attended Laurel High School but never graduated and was convicted of a 2008 theft in Montgomery County. He was also charged with armed robbery there in 2006, though the outcome of that case isn't clear.

When Martinez found Islam, it helped him stop many destructive behaviors, Balter said. On his Facebook account, Martinez described himself as "just a yung brotha from the wrong side of the tracks who embraced Islam."

In the summer of 2010, he married a young college student, according to posts on the social networking site. Soon afterward, he appears to have developed more radical views of Islam, which his wife did not seem to support.

According to a statement of facts in his plea agreement, Martinez told an FBI informant in October 2010 that he wanted to kill military personnel, eventually identifying as his target the armed forces recruiting center on U.S. 40 in Catonsville.

In November, he suggested that a car bomb would be the appropriate weapon because it would avoid a "shootout" with authorities and ensure he would survive "to fight another day," court records say. He made his move on Dec. 8, 2010, after the FBI supplied him with the fake bomb.

"He had no compunction, no hesitation, no remorse in actually being willing to press a button" and kill U.S. soldiers, Manuelian said in court Friday.

Martinez was arrested within seconds of pushing that button, and no one was hurt.

In jail, Martinez reflected on his choices and came to understand they were misguided and "simply wrong," Balter said.

"He absolutely shudders at the thought of what could have happened," Balter said. "The defense team has frankly been moved by what we have seen, the progress of Mr. Martinez."

Martinez also spoke during the hearing, with more than a half-dozen family members and friends looking on. He began by praising Allah, then took responsibility for the attempted attack, saying he believed it was the right thing to do to protect his religion.

"But the reality of the situation," he said, "is that it was not, and this is something I now know." He expressed love for humanity and professed a new way of thinking that blocked his old, violent views, which had completely taken "control of [his] mind."

"I sincerely apologize for my treacherous actions and behavior," he said, adding that he was grateful no one was hurt. He also denounced violent groups such as al-Qaida as "in fact, not jihad."

"We should not confuse the methodology of al-Qaida for the perfect way of life that is Islam," Martinez said, repeating three times in slightly different versions: "I renounce [the misguidance] of terrorism." He called the "real Islam" a "mission of peace" and a religion that no one in the courtroom should be afraid of.

Motz reminded Martinez of the "power of words" and urged him to use his to "teach others that terrorism and jihad is not that way."

"The fact that we are a tolerant people does not mean that we are a weak people. ... We will take what action we deem appropriate to protect ourselves" Motz warned. "I hope what you have come to realize remains true in your life."

Martinez hugged Balter and appeared at peace after the hearing, a big smile on his face. His family blew kisses to him as he was led away. "I love you, Tony," said one woman. His mother previously told reporters she believed her son had been "brainwashed."

After the hearing, when asked if she accepted Martinez's renunciation of terrorism, Manuelian said "Accept it? I don't know that that's the right word. He said what he said."

Balter declined to comment on the banner.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

twitter.com/triciabishop

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