In converts, authorities see threats

Their evening prayers ended, a small group of Muslim men lingering in a storefront mosque in Woodlawn turned to the news of the day: A man who had knelt among them had been arrested on charges of terrorism.

Antonio Martinez, who they said converted to Islam at their mosque and returned occasionally to pray, had been arrested and was accused of plotting to bomb a military recruitment station in Catonsville. Authorities say Martinez, who now calls himself Muhammad Hussain, is the latest of the so-called "homegrown terrorists," U.S. citizens or residents who seek to kill fellow countrymen in the name of their religion.

At least 50 such cases have been prosecuted since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, experts say, ranging from the Fort Hood shootings that left 13 dead to plots that were never carried out, such as the one allegedly envisioned by " Jihad Jane," Colleen LaRose of Pennsylvania, to kill a Swedish cartoonist for his mocking depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.

Officials say terror threats are increasingly coming not from beyond U.S. borders but from within them. For whatever reason — perhaps anger over government policy or a search for a cause larger than themselves — people like Martinez are latching onto a religion that has been used by extremists as a vehicle for terrorism.

The convert is just one kind of homegrown terrorist, according to the authors of "American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat," a Congressional Research Service report issued in September. They noted that attacks have been planned both by immigrants such as would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan who attended high school in Queens, and by U.S.-born citizens such as Daniel Patrick Boyd, a convert to Islam accused of targeting the Marine base in Quantico, Va.

At Faizah-e-Madina Mosque in Woodlawn, some expressed fear that their religion has drawn those who seem to be on political or criminal rather than spiritual quests.

"That is not Islam," said Arshad Raja, who recognized Martinez from news coverage. Raja, a cabdriver who lives in Pikesville, said he now feels he has to worry about those who express a desire to join the faith. "If another one comes here, we have to be careful of that person."

Much remains unknown about Martinez, a 21-year-old U.S. citizen of Nicaraguan heritage — what led him to Islam, to turn against the United States, or to allegedly attempt to detonate what he believed to be a bomb Wednesday at the military recruiting center in Catonsville. The device was actually inert and was provided by an undercover FBI agent as part of a sting operation.

"You have some people who come in because of a grievance," said Gary LaFree, who directs the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. "Others have a girlfriend, a boyfriend or someone they play soccer with. Sometimes you have a group conversion, a whole group upset at something the government has done.

"One of the things that seems to be happening is that a lot of the folks are operating more as lone wolves," LaFree said. "Sometimes they seem more similar to wannabes — you find the same thing among gang members: There's a core group and then hangers-on."

LaFree, whose consortium is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said people such as Martinez can get drawn to radical Islam through the Internet. According to federal agents, Martinez wrote on his Facebook account that "the sword is cummin the reign of oppression is about 2 cease" and "Any 1 who opposes ALLAH and HIS Prophet … Him I hate u with all my heart," posted links to apparent pro-jihadist websites, and was observed viewing videos of Osama bin Laden and men in traditional Muslim attire firing assault rifles.

Martinez does not appear to be part of an organized group, authorities say.

Steven Emerson, a researcher who founded and directs the Investigative Project on Terrorism, says Martinez's conversion to Islam seems to have followed what he considers a typical pattern of those who ultimately attempt terrorist acts. Based on the allegations against Martinez, Emerson said, he apparently converted not just to Islam but radical Islam, quickly becoming a true believer.

"Something is there to motivate him to instantly become radicalized," Emerson said. "He bought into the motif … it's a war against Islam and we have to defend it."

Emerson said some Islamist groups are making "a concerted effort" to recruit Latinos. He pointed to Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member arrested in 2002 for allegedly planning to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" but ultimately convicted of different charges. Padilla converted to Islam while in a Florida prison.

"I can only speculate," Emerson said. "Maybe they feel Hispanics are feeling inherently alienated. I guess they're looking for people more susceptible to being persuaded."

Others caution against making too much of the supposed rash of Muslim-American terrorists. While the arrest of a Martinez draws news media attention, University of North Carolina sociologist Charles Kurzman says, the actual rate of terrorist attacks planned or executed since 9/11 remains far below that of other crimes.

The congressional report counted 14 people killed in the United States by jihadists since the attacks of Sept. 11 — 13 of them in the Fort Hood shootings last fall. The other was a military recruiter shot by an American convert to Islam last year in Little Rock, Ark.

"Most converts are not radical. They're not political. They simply want to practice their religion," said Kurzman, a professor of Islamic studies. "Within this group, there is a small group that is troubled, who have grievances against foreign policies, who take this path simultaneously of political radicalization and religious zealotry."

In several cases, Kurzman said, it was concerned fellow Muslims, often relatives, who initially alerted U.S. authorities to the suspects' increasing radicalism. There have been reports, for example, that the father or other relatives of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old accused of planning to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony last month in Portland, Ore., had contacted officials after growing concerned about his increasingly radical interests.

In Martinez's case, it is unclear who reported him to authorities, triggering the sting operation. A former co-worker told The Baltimore Sun that his mother and his girlfriend at the time of his conversion did not approve of it. On his Facebook page, someone who identified himself as Martinez's brother-in-law tried repeatedly to channel the young man's religious fervor toward more constructive avenues.

Martinez's arrest follows a similar pattern of recent federal prosecutions in which officials learn of individuals or groups talking about attacking the United States and informants or agents manage to infiltrate and foil the plot.

In October, for example, three American converts and a Haitian immigrant were convicted of planting what they thought were bombs outside a synagogue and a Jewish center in the Bronx last year and plotting to fire missiles at military planes. An informant recorded their conversations and provided a fake bomb — the method used to net Mohamud in Portland and Martinez in Baltimore County.

Those who have studied such cases point to something of a perfect storm brewing: The Internet brings voices of Islamic extremists from around the globe home to the United States, where they can be received by the angry and the alienated, while heightened awareness of terrorism has law enforcement agencies and the public at large focused on preventing the next attack.

The radical websites and YouTube videos can find willing listeners among the disaffected, said Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware who has written extensively on American Muslims.

"They go on the Net, they come across very charismatic personalities, they get motivated," Khan said "Then the friendly neighborhood FBI agent will complete the transaction."