A 21-year-old Baltimore County man, whose Facebook postings about jihad gave way to discussions with an FBI informant about how to kill American soldiers, was arrested Wednesday after authorities say he tried to blow up a Catonsville military recruiting center using a car bomb supplied by undercover agents.
Federal authorities said Antonio Martinez, a recent convert to Islam who called himself Muhammad Hussain, watched videos of Osama bin Laden and mused about "dying for the cause" by joining militant forces overseas.
Unable to afford to travel to Pakistan or Afghanistan, Martinez instead proposed hitting local military installations to send a message. Officials say those plans culminated when he parked an SUV equipped with a dummy bomb in a suburban parking lot not far from his home.
It was the second FBI sting in as many weeks against an alleged homegrown terrorist trying to detonate a powerful car bomb, and like a recently foiled plot in Oregon, federal agents were watching the whole time.
Authorities described Martinez as a "lone wolf" who never posed a threat to the public and had no ties to terrorist organizations. But the investigation showed he was "absolutely committed to carrying out an attack which would have cost lives," said Richard A. McFeely, special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore field office.
The White House said in a statement that President Barack Obama had been informed of the operation prior to the arrest. The investigation "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.
The public defender assigned to represent Martinez cautioned Wednesday that people should not make assumptions about Martinez's guilt.
Court records show the operation came together quickly. After Martinez posted a vague comment on his Facebook page in late September, a confidential source notified the FBI and began engaging Martinez in conversations in which he shared his anger at U.S. military personnel.
"Each and every Muslim in this country … knows that America is at war with Islam and they're not doing anything about it," he said, according to a recorded conversation. "No one is stepping up to do anything. We have to be the ones to pull that trigger."
Martinez's plans to attack a military installation eventually focused on the Armed Forces Career Center in the 5400 block of Baltimore National Pike. He told a confidential informant that he knew how to get weapons, and sketched out how they could storm the building from the roof and "shoot everybody in the place."
He praised Nidal Hassan, the Army major who killed 13 soldiers in Fort Hood, saying Hassan had saved the lives of untold Muslims who would have been killed by those soldiers.
Martinez, who last lived in Woodlawn, was focused on acquiring rifles, but records show that an undercover FBI agent floated the idea of using a powerful vehicle bomb. With the seed planted, Martinez would inquire the next day about how to go about assembling such a device.
Muslims reacted with outrage and anxiety to news of the arrest. Muhammad Jameel, general secretary of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, which is located in Catonsville, spent the afternoon fielding questions from reporters and in prayer at the center's mosque, one of the largest in Maryland.
"We categorically condemn any criminal act, anybody who tries to hurt anyone" said Jameel, who has spent 40 years trying to transcend stereotypes about his faith. "Muslims always feel they are being subject to someone else defining what Islam is. This doesn't help."
Dr. Rashid Chotani, former president of the Howard County Muslim Council, said the arrest "is going to reflect very poorly on all of us." He said he feared the arrest could be a setback to years of effort to build better ties with government officials and people of other faiths.
"My biggest fear is children, how do they react to it," said Chotani, referring to both to Muslim children and those of other religions.
Wednesday's arrest closely mirrors a series of other recent FBI cases around the country in which U.S. law enforcement officials have used informants and undercover agents to shoulder up to potential terrorists, record them with hidden wires and other technology, and then arrest them when they try to set off bombs that the FBI knows will not detonate.
The arrests have come in Portland, Ore., where a man thought he was setting off a car bomb during a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony, in Chicago, where a man placed a backpack with fake explosives at a sports bar near Wrigley Field, and in the Washington metro area, where a man was scouting Metro stations in Northern Virginia and hoping to bomb the lines that feed in and out of the Pentagon.
"Stings are part and parcel of the toolbox law enforcement must have and must employ particularly in this kind of a terrorist environment," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said after Martinez's arrest. "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 terror 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."
Authorities in Baltimore defended their use of an undercover agent who passed himself off as a "Afghani brother" in getting close to Martinez, calling it a "proactive investigative stance." U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said that stings are pursued only when "there is a serious risk that cannot be ignored."
According to the affidavit in the Martinez case, the undercover agent told Martinez he knew how to "do something" with propane, could train him to "go in with a gun," and "would support him as Martinez promised to keep their discussions and plans between them." If he wanted to do something, the agent told Martinez, "I can help you."
After the arrest in Portland, when Martinez worried that he too was being set up, the agent did not lose his composure, even after Martinez questioned his associates and said "I'm not falling for no b.s."
Finally, the undercover agent allegedly provided the SUV to ferry the bomb. Further, "the [agent] showed Martinez the device that would activate the bomb and explained to him how to use it. The [agent] also showed Martinez the components for the bomb that were in the back of the SUV."
The agent even alerted Martinez when there were soldiers visible in the recruiting station — a cue for Martinez to detonate the explosives. But the bomb was inert, and Martinez "was immediately placed under arrest."
Martinez is charged with attempted murder of federal employees and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction against U.S. property. He faces life in prison if convicted.
At an afternoon court hearing, Martinez wore an untucked white button-down shirt with jeans. He had wild curly hair, his face was unshaven and he looked down as U.S. Magistrate Judge James K. Bredar read the charges.
Martinez said he worked in construction and was married. According to his Facebook page, he attended Laurel High School, though a Prince George's County school spokeswoman could only confirm that he was a student at county schools.
The judge issued a temporary order of detention for Martinez and set a hearing for Monday afternoon.
Deputy federal public defender Joseph Balter was appointed to handle his case.
"It's very, very early," Balter said after the hearing. "We really hope that nobody jumps to any judgments" about his guilt. Balter declined to comment further.
Though Martinez gave a Northwest Baltimore address in court, law enforcement sources said he lived with his mother and several siblings in a newly built Woodlawn apartment complex. A sign advertises the complex of tidy tan apartments with white trim as "Woodlawn's best kept secret."
A young boy opened the door at the family's apartment. A woman there identified herself as Martinez's sister.
"I don't want to talk about my brother," she said. "When my mother gets home, you can talk to her."
On his Facebook page, which was still publicly accessible Wednesday, Martinez and a Boston woman list themselves as married. The woman, who says she is a senior at a women's college outside Boston, could not be reached for comment.
Martinez also posted videos on the social networking site about the "paradise that awaits" and wrote about "rising up." "IM just a yung brotha from the wrong side of the tracks who embraced Islam," he wrote in the biography section of his page.
Officials said Martinez tried to recruit others into the plot and was turned down. One, according to court records, told him the idea was "wrong ideologically, would cause harm to Muslims, and probably would result in Martinez getting caught."
Of the four people Martinez allegedly tried to "recruit in the scheme," Rosenstein said, "two turned him down, one tried to talk him out of it, and the fourth turned him into the FBI."
WBAL-TV reported that Martinez was originally from Nicaragua, and court records said he had only recently embraced Islam. A former co-worker said he had been baptized as a Christian last year.
Court records and his own words posted on his Facebook page show he was drawn to radical teachings, including those of Anwar al-Awlaki, who authorities have said had contacts with Nidal Hassan and Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab, who tried to detonate an underwear bomb on a plane on Christmas Day 2009.
Martinez referred to al-Awlaki as his "beloved sheikh," though there is no indication that he had contact with the former imam.
The recruiting center that was targeted by Martinez is in a strip mall that also houses a nail salon and beauty supply store. In the window of the recruiting office, a sign listed its hours as 9 a.m. to 18:00 hours. By Wednesday afternoon, the center appeared closed.
Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Serrano and Sun reporters Scott Calvert, Raven L. Hill, Erik Maza, Frank Roylance, Arthur Hirsch and Julie Scharper and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun