A former Army intelligence specialist pleaded guilty Monday to destroying his computer in an attempt to cover his tracks before flying to Africa in a bid to join the Somali militant group al-Shabaab.
Craig Benedict Baxam, 26, of Laurel was sentenced in a Baltimore federal courtroom to seven years in prison on the charge of destroying records he thought could be used in a terrorism investigation.
The case tested the limits of federal terrorism laws, as prosecution and defense took fundamentally different views of whether Baxam's effort to join the group in 2011 amounted to an attempt to help a terrorist group. Al-Shabaab has been linked to al-Qaida, and authorities say it is responsible for a deadly attack last year on a Kenyan mall.
Baxam's attorney argued that the defendant merely wanted to practice Islam among other Muslims in Somalia, and that he was free under the First Amendment to take actions to do so.
But the U.S. attorney's office contended that Baxam wanted to fight and was prepared to die for al-Shabaab, which is a crime. Federal prosecutors originally charged Baxam with attempting to provide material support to al-Shabaab.
Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School who has examined the free-speech implications of terrorism prosecutions, said Baxam's case rested on a tricky legal issue.
"The question is, could you join without supporting?" Feldman said. "That's not entirely clear.
"Under the law, if you engaged in coordinated action designed to support al-Shabaab, even if you were not a member and even if your action was as a whole peaceful, you could be found guilty of providing material support."
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said that while his office is mindful of First Amendment concerns in terror cases, they were not at issue in the prosecution of Baxam.
"He clearly knew what he was doing was wrong," Rosenstein said, pointing to the destruction of the computer. "If Kenyan authorities hadn't stopped him, he would have become a member of al-Shabaab."
The judge, who at one point expressed reservations about the government's case, let the original charge stand, but authorities voluntarily withdrew it Monday following Baxam's plea to one count of destruction of records.
Baxam's attorney, Linda Moreno, called the outcome "just" and said the authorities' original theory in the case amounted to a "demonization" of Islam.
"Our position was that this indictment should never have been filed," Moreno said. "The government should go after bad guys. Craig was not one of those."
After leaving the Army in 2011, having served for four years, Baxam cashed out his Thrift Savings Plan account and used the proceeds to buy a plane ticket, planning to hand over whatever money he had left to al-Shabaab, prosecutors wrote in court documents.
From his work as an intelligence operative, Baxam knew that the FBI could track his computer activity, and authorities wrote they recovered files that show he researched al-Shabaab before leaving the United States.
Baxam destroyed his computer, according to his plea agreement, throwing its remains into a garbage bin.
Still cautious about being detected, Baxam bought a round-trip ticket to Kenya, his plea agreement said. He believed it would look less suspicious than a one-way passage.
Kenyan authorities picked up Baxam in December 2011 as he made his way to Somalia by land. Baxam was interviewed multiple times by FBI agents and told them, according to court documents, that he would be happy to die in Somalia to secure his place in heaven.
"Baxam said that he would fight against any country, including the United States and his former colleagues in the U.S. Army, if Al Shabaab controlled areas were invaded or if anyone tried to institute a democratic government there," prosecutors wrote in one filing.
Al-Shabaab is a group of militia fighters and insurgents based in southern Somalia and has ties to al-Qaida, according to the National Counterterrorism Center. The group has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department since 2008.
Prosecutors also argued that Baxam must have known that living in territory under al-Shabaab's control and joining the organization would have required him to submit to the group's authority.
Moreno said Baxam was following a fairly conventional interpretation of his religion in seeking to live in a place governed by sharia, or Muslim religious law.
Baxam's mother, Deanna Baxam, who attended the hearing, said he had a deep spiritual side. She recalled a trip to the beach where her teenage son stayed in the car reading the Bible the entire time.
While he was unable to discuss much of his work with the Army, Deanna Baxam said, he was affected by a deployment in Iraq and came back a more somber, sober person.
"He did an extremely challenging job, and he did it well," she added.