A Baltimore-area man will face up to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty Thursday to the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction in connection with a failed terrorist plot to blow up a Catonsville military recruiting center in December 2010.
Antonio Benjamin Martinez, 22, who also goes by the name Muhammad Hussain, had also been charged with attempting to murder federal officials, but he pleaded not guilty to that count in a deal with federal prosecutors. His sentencing is set for April 6 in Maryland U.S. District Court.
Martinez appeared relaxed in court, answering the judge's questions politely and conferring with his attorney several times. He wore a maroon prison-issued jumpsuit and white sneakers, his long hair divided into two braids. His mother, who has previously said her son was "brainwashed," was not in the courtroom.
"We are catching dangerous suspects before they strike, and we are investigating them in a way that maximizes the liberty and security of law-abiding citizens," Maryland U.S. AttorneyRod J. Rosensteinsaid in a statement.
The allegations against Martinez, and a handful of others, have sent shock waves across the nation as people come to grips with the idea that some terrorist suspects are home-grown.
Martinez is among a network of would-be terrorists who are using the Internet to offer their services to other so-called holy warriors or to recruit like-minded volunteers. An Ellicott City teen was indicted by federal authorities in Philadelphia recently for allegedly raising money online to fund a jihadist war in South Asia and Europe. And a former Army private from Laurel was federally charged this month with attempting to aid a foreign terrorist organization after being drawn to radical Islam from a website.
Federal agents are monitoring social networking sites and other Web pages for hints of unrest and cozying up to 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 "Afghani brother" and provided an inert vehicle bomb that the young man attempted to detonate. It's a tactic that has also been used in Oregon, Illinois and Washington.
Rosenstein said after the hearing that Martinez's case, which was broken through Facebook postings, was representative of the "approach that the Justice Department has taken since" Sept. 11, 2001. "We will do everything we can" to protect the public, he said.
Martinez's federal public defender, Joseph A. Balter, was unavailable for comment after the morning hearing. He had argued previously that Martinez was entrapped by federal agents.
But in court Thursday, Martinez, who believed himself a Muslim holy warrior, according to legal filings, agreed to drop his entrapment defense along with any claims that the investigation had been improper. Rosenstein praised the work of FBI agents as "excellent" and "about as good as it gets" after the hearing.
Richard McFeely, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore division, thanked "the Muslim community [for] reaching out to identify the threat early on."
The agency became aware of Martinez, who lived at addresses in Gwynn Oak and Windsor Mill, on Oct. 8, 2010. An informant who had worked with the FBI on other investigations told an agent about Martinez's Facebook postings, which the informant found while looking into another matter.
Martinez glorified jihad, often interpreted as holy war, and warned in a September post on the social-networking site that "the sword is cummin [and] the reign of opression is about 2 cease inshallah," according to court papers.
The informant claimed to have recognized Martinez from a local mosque and to have met him in August during Ramadan.
"You have the green light to speak with him," an FBI agent wrote in an email to the informant. Over the next few days, the source met with Martinez, exchanged emails with him and chatted online.
"My dream is to be amongst the ranks of the mujahideen," Martinez allegedly wrote in one digital conversation. "Jihad is all I think about when i sleep, when I wake up, sometimes i cry cuz im not there and kaffur [nonbelievers] killing all our brothers and sisters."
Martinez, who attended Laurel High School but never graduated, was a newlywed and recent convert to Islam at the time, having abandoned the Christianity he'd adopted only a year earlier. Authorities say he was drawn to a radical interpretation of Islam that encourages violence against religious enemies as a righteous path to glory.
In the summer of 2010, he had married a young college student who was living separately in Massachusetts, according to a message posted on her Facebook account, which has since been disabled. On his own Facebook account, Martinez described himself as "just a yung brotha from the wrong side of the tracks who embraced Islam."
Martinez has previously been convicted of a 2008 theft in Montgomery County. He was charged with armed robbery there in 2006, though the outcome of that case isn't clear.
According to a statement of facts within his plea agreement, Martinez told the informant in October 2010 of his desire to kill military personnel, and eventually identified his target as the armed forces recruiting center on Route 40 in Catonsville.
In November, he suggested that a car bomb would be the appropriate weapon, because it would avoid a "shoot-out" with authorities and ensure he survives "to fight another day," court records claim.
He made his move on Dec. 8, 2010, after the FBI, which had agents working undercover, supplied him with a fake vehicle bomb.
"He actually did push the device" that was supposed to set off the explosive, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Manuelian told reporters after the hearing Thursday, "and then realized it wasn't working."
He was arrested within seconds, and no one was hurt.
Said Rosenstein, in his statement: "That is what the American people expect of the Justice Department, and that is what we aim to deliver."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun