A 21-year-old Baltimore construction worker, who drew federal scrutiny after he boasted on Facebook about his devotion to violent jihad, was arrested Wednesday after he allegedly tried to blow up a U.S. military recruitment center with a dummy car bomb built by the FBI.
The dramatic take-down is the second FBI sting since Thanksgiving against an alleged homegrown terrorist trying to detonate a powerful car bomb. It raised fresh concerns about how English-speaking extremists from Al Qaeda and its allies are increasingly able to recruit Americans willing to commit mass violence.
U.S. officials said Antonio Martinez, a U.S. citizen who recently converted to Islam and called himself Muhammad Hussain, dialed a cellphone that he believed would ignite barrels of explosives packed into a sport utility vehicle. The SUV had been parked by the Armed Forces recruiting station at a strip mall in Catonsville, a bedroom suburb west of Baltimore.
In court documents, Martinez is quoted as saying, “We have to be the ones to pull that trigger. Send that message.”
But like the recently thwarted plot in Portland, Ore., the bomb was a phony prepared by the FBI, and agents immediately arrested Martinez. He was charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder of federal officers and employees. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
At an afternoon court hearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Martinez wore an untucked white T-shirt with jeans. He had wild curly hair and his face was unshaven, and he looked down as U.S. Magistrate Judge James K. Bredar read the charges. Bredar set a hearing for Monday.
The White House said President Obama was informed about the sting before the arrest, and that no one was in danger because the FBI was tracking the suspect’s movements and communication.
“This arrest underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism here and abroad and why we have been focusing on addressing the challenge posed by domestic radicalization,” said Nicholas Shapiro, a White House spokesman.
Court documents portray Martinez as passionate about joining jihad, and determined to punish the U.S. military for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a Facebook posting Oct. 14, according to an FBI affidavit, Martinez wrote how “it was his dream to be among the ranks of the mujahedeen” and “all he thinks about is jihad.”
Martinez allegedly praised Maj. Nidal Hassan, the Army psychiatrist who has been charged with killing 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas, last year. And he allegedly called Anwar Awlaki, the American-born Al Qaeda propagandist believed to operate from Yemen, a “real inspiration.” U.S. officials have designated Awlaki a “specially designated global terrorist” and have sought to kill him.
But Martinez also appeared unskilled in terror tactics until the FBI offered to help, according to the affidavit. At one point, he suggested stuffing “a sock or something” in the exhaust pipes of Army vehicles so passengers would “slowly but surely die.” He also proposed building a secret mosque in the woods where he could hide after an attack, the affidavit said.
His mother disapproved of his life choices, according to records. “She wants me to be like everybody else, being in school, working,” he told an FBI informant. “Glad I am not like everyone else my age — going out having fun, be in college, all that stuff. That’s not me.... That [sic] not what Allah has in mind for me.”
Counter-terrorism officials said the case is further proof that Al Qaeda no longer needs to lure recruits to far-flung training camps to foment potentially deadly plots. Nearly all the recent terrorism plots discovered or foiled by the FBI have involved U.S. citizens.
“It just points to the fact that we’re seeing more young people become radicalized in this country than we’ve ever seen before,” said a senior U.S. official, who said he was not authorized to speak on the record.
In recent weeks, arrests have come in Portland, Ore., where a 19-year-old allegedly thought he was setting off a car bomb at a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony; in Chicago, where a man is accused of placing a backpack with fake explosives at a sports bar near Wrigley Field; and near Washington, D.C., where a man was charged with seeking to bomb subway trains around the Pentagon.
The Maryland case began Oct. 8 after an FBI informant in Baltimore, who is not identified in court papers, spotted Martinez’s provocative Facebook postings under the name Muhammad Hussain. With FBI approval, the informant replied and the two struck up an Internet friendship.
On Oct. 22, court papers say, Martinez asked his Facebook friend “about attacking Army recruiting centers or anything military. He indicated that if the military continued to kill their Muslim brothers and sisters, they would need to expand their operation by killing U.S. Army personnel where they live. He stated that jihad is not only in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but also in the United States.”
A week later, according to court papers, Martinez had the informant drive him to the two-story Armed Forces center in Catonsville, and announced his intention to “shoot everybody in the place.” The pair then discussed building a car bomb instead, and an undercover FBI agent was brought in Nov. 16, court documents say.
The FBI said Martinez asked at least three friends to join him, but all declined — and one tried to dissuade him from going forward.
“The danger posed by the defendant in this case was very real,” said Richard McFeely, special agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Baltimore division. He and other officials defended the use of a sting to capture a terrorism suspect.
“Stings are part and parcel of the toolbox law enforcement must have and must employ, particularly in this kind of a terrorist environment,” Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, said Wednesday. “There are rules that govern them and they are done very carefully, and the FBI abides by those rules, law enforcement abides by those rules, but they are an important tool to have.”
She added that the terrorism threat from domestic radicals is “increasingly active.” There is, she said, “an increasing amount of hometown or homegrown terrorist activity particularly by individuals who have become radicalized and associated with Al Qaeda or Islamist terrorism beliefs and techniques and tactics.”
Federal officials in Baltimore said their use of the undercover agent, who passed himself off as an “Afghani brother” to get close to Martinez, was a “proactive investigative stance.”
After the FBI sting in Portland hit the headlines, Martinez worried that he too was being set up. “I’m not falling for no b.s,” the FBI said Martinez told the federal agent.
Justin Fenton and Tricia Bishop of the Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.