Special Report

The Curious Case of Craig Benedict Baxam

What would make an American Iraq war veteran join forces with al-Shabaab? 

By 1.26.12

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On the evening of Tuesday, December 20, 2011, Craig Benedict Baxam boarded a flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, arriving the next afternoon in London, England. Following a twelve-hour layover, the 24-year-old American emplaned upon a Virgin Atlantic Airbus, outbound to Nairobi, Kenya. He landed Thursday morning, and made a bee-line for the largest mosque in the capital city. It was time for morning prayers.

Twelve hours later, Baxam was on an overnight bus to Mombasa. Two more days of travel found him heading for the northeastern backwater of Garissa. A stranger approached and asked Baxam several pointed questions about the purpose of his visit to the country. Believing the man to be a fellow Muslim, Baxam obliged his queries.

Hours later, Craig Baxam was in the custody of Kenyan police, charged with an unlawful attempt to enter the specter state of Somalia. In a matter of days, he was back in the United States -- held by federal authorities for attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. As Baxam admitted to investigators, he had emptied his life savings into his unsuccessful bid to join forces with al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda's regional affiliate on the Horn of Africa.

The facts of the case are detailed in the criminal complaint filed before Maryland's southern Federal District Court. Spelled out in plain English, this young man offers an unlikely case study. Craig Baxam was not the product of a radical mosque. He was not born into a fundamentalist Muslim community at the fringe of American culture. Rather, Baxam was raised in Washington, D.C.'s  predominantly Christian shoulder city of Takoma Park, Maryland. He served his country in Baghdad before reenlisting for a year-long stint in South Korea.

If this story sounds slightly familiar, that's understandable. You will recall another young man -- himself born and raised off the Capital Beltway -- named John Walker Lindh. The "American Taliban" pulled up stakes for the hinterlands of Afghanistan, and turned traitor on the wrong side of Qala-i-Jangi fortress in 2001. Whereas Lindh translated his pampered youth into just cause for defection and collaboration with the sworn enemies of America, Baxam served his country in war -- an expert in cryptology and intelligence analysis. While the search for "authentic" Islam drove both men against the law of this land, the paths they found to treason converged only in the distance they traveled.

For his part, Baxam's compulsion stank of cyber Islamica poured through the insurgent Cuisinart -- pureeing everything from pseudo-Sharia to casual anti-Americanism into a sallow, seditious soup. He secretly converted to Islam after a brief, but passionate affair with a number of radical websites. Within weeks, he had begun to separate himself from the American military. He soon found himself back in Maryland plotting his hijra -- the obligatory migration to Islamic lands. This notion of hijra represents a critical institution of "protection" in Islamic tradition and dates back to the Prophet Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina to avoid assassination. Craig Baxam felt similarly imperiled here in the Land of the Free -- loud music, idolatrous images. and rampant modernity distressed his fragile piety.

He needed to make a move -- both physically and spiritually -- towards orthodoxy. But his options were limited. From his perspective, true Islam could only be found in primitive austerity, where Sharia jurisprudence channels seventh century Arabia: places like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan or Abu Sayyaf separatist strongholds in the Philippines. However, such regions are war-ravaged and difficult to access. Judging from his desire to take up arms in defense of Salafist revival and the country's porous border, Somalia must have seemed an attractive choice. Moreover, as an African American, Baxam's appearance would excite fewer questions as he made his way overland -- by bus -- to the front lines of East African jihad. Where else could one stumble so glibly into Islamic insurgency waged against the enemies of Allah and their foreign handlers?

Yet Baxam is not alone in his desire to reach the movement. Last year, an investigation by staffers on the House Homeland Security Committee, led by Chairman Pete King (R-NY) found that more than 40 Americans have attempted to join al Shabaab. And while many of them hail from Minnesota's Somali-American community, others fit a less predictable profile. Witness Craig Benedict Baxam.

SO WHAT MAKES Somalia so attractive to would-be jihadis? As the emergence of the Afghani Taliban suggested in the 1990s, some of the most hazardous Islamic revivalism defines itself on the edge of the Muslim world. Localized security concerns radicalize religious identities and rouse like-minded Muslims into ideological uniformity and political indivisibility.

By nearly any working definition, Somalia fits the profile of a failed state -- and it has come to represent the Wild West of our globalized world. Decades of lawlessness have left pirates scouring the coastline while Islamist militias control the streets. Their reign of terror was born with the emergence of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), who ushered in a wave of medieval Islamic orthodoxy.

Decades spent absent a proper government led to the foundation of these local Islamic courts by Muslim businessmen who wanted someone to catch and punish thieves. Echoing Taliban claims of perverse social guardianship, the ICU's militias soon ruled Mogadishu's markets and major trade routes with an iron fist. Like the Taliban before it, the ICU offered a religious solution to state failure. Its political message resonated with locally held religious beliefs. For the poor and illiterate residents of southern Somalia, the ICU platform appealed through the personification of those ideals in the movement's leadership. When the ICU fell to the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and their Ethiopian military allies, the group splintered into several smaller factions. Ultimately, the al Shabaab movement inherited the ICU's political function -- and expanded the police and militia force into a full-blown insurgency against the interim government.

These days, al Shabaab cannot be classified as a centralized or monolithic organization. The movement is made up of local clans and its internal mechanics are prone to shifting alliances and tribal politics. While most of its 14,000 rank-and-file fighters are motivated by their religious war against the TFG, senior leadership is affiliated with al Qaeda and has likely trained in Afghanistan. The U.S. government designated al Shabaab as a "Foreign Terrorist Organization" back in 2008, given statements linking Somalia to al Qaeda's global operations, rampant suicide bombing and their penchant for beheading innocent civilians. In other words, al Shabaab offers something for everyone in a failed state where terror is the growth industry.  

Baxam's decision to forsake God and country was based on a desire to join the next generation of Islamic jihad. He was willing to martyr himself in the war against secular governance, saying that he would be content to perish "with a gun in my hand." He, and dozens of other Americans like him, have chosen to join ranks with this nebulous, transnational militia to wage war on the forces of modernity. In the process, they are willing to sow the seeds of famine, internal displacement, and murder.

For innocent Somalis and the people of Eastern Africa, the enemy remains intact, invigorated and it's taking applications from the US of A.

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About the Author

Reid Smith writes from Washington. Follow him on Twitter @reidtsmith