He is a veteran of the Iraq war, a U.S. soldier versed in secret codes and intelligence. He had kept his conversion to Islam a secret, except for the time he was spotted in his barracks with a prayer rug.
Today, 24-year-old Craig Baxam stands accused of being an aspiring lone-wolf terrorist, a man on a mission to help an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. He was arrested after returning from overseas to his suburban family home outside of Washington, D.C.
The strange and puzzling case announced Monday speaks to the global appeal of al-Shabab, the youthful jihadistswho are encouraging extremists in the West to join an Islamist uprising aimed at taking over Somalia.
Twitter messages and YouTube videos have helped the guerrillas gain traction and spread propaganda feared by Western governments and many expatriate Somalis. "It's not hard for them to reach people in the West – because of their use of the Internet and videos, they can reach anyone," Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress, said in an interview.
In Europe and North America, dozens of would-be al-Shabab members have been charged recently with attempting to join or attempting to help the group. A Toronto student of Somali heritage, for example, was pre-emptively arrested before boarding an outbound flight at Pearson Airport last year.
But the case of Mr. Baxam is especially surprising given that the accused has no real ties to Somalia – or, arguably, religion.
He is said to have converted to an ultra-hardline interpretation of Islam after reading random articles on the Internet in July, as he quit the army.
By the Christmas holidays, he was in Nairobi with an alleged scheme. "His plan was to cross the border and find the first mosque ... an al-Shabab mosque," reads an affidavit FBI Special Agent John B. Phillips swore on Monday as the charges were announced.
He didn't get very far. Kenyan anti-terrorist police pulled Mr. Baxam off a bus for behaving suspiciously. Then, FBI agents stationed in the East African country were allowed to question the American suspect.
During several interviews, Mr. Baxam allegedly told the FBI he "would be happy to die defending Islam, being mowed down, or hit with a cruise missile." He also allegedly said he wanted to die "with a gun in my hand."
While al-Shabab confines its terrorist operations to East Africa, some leaders cut their teeth with al-Qaeda figures in Afghanistan and others have sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Mr. Baxam allegedly told the FBI he was fuzzy on the distinction between the two terror groups and that he mostly just "wanted to practise Islam unoppressed until he dies."
Though he never got to Somalia and is not alleged to have met any al-Shabab fighters, Mr. Baxam was charged upon returning to the United States with attempting to lend material support to a banned terrorist group.
Five years ago, he had joined the U.S. Army right out of high school. In 2007 he was schooled for eight months in "advanced individual training for cryptology and intelligence." After that, he was twice deployed to Iraq.