Craig Baxam left the military to practice Islam in Somalia but ended up imprisoned for murky terrorism-related charges, a case that exposes the conflict between religious fundamentalism and the US national security apparatus.
Craig Baxam was lost. He thought he was in a town in northern Kenya called Marareme, though really he didn’t have a clue. He then got on a bus headed to Garissa, towards the Somali border, but was puzzled by the way the other passengers referred to it as “Arara”.
Baxam was far from home, spoke no local language and knew little about the region he was traveling through. If he were successful in reaching southernSomalia, his destination, things would almost certainly get worse for him: the war-torn country, where he planned to live according to his faith, remains one of the most inhospitable and perilous on Earth.
Yet none of that flustered him. All he wanted was to keep on moving towards the border. Find it, cross it and begin a new, better, devout life.
Baxam, 24 at the time, had thrown to the winds his comfortable existence in Laurel, Maryland, where he worked for a TV services company. In December 2011 he cashed in his thrift savings plan account (all $3,613.38 of it), gave $1,000 of that to an acquaintance in need, and with the rest bought himself a ticket to Nairobi. He had decided to set out on a hijrah, a migration to a true Islamic land, as he was instructed to do in the Qu’ran.
To say that this was all new to Baxam would be an understatement. A black American raised Catholic who had recently discharged himself from the US army after four years of service, he grew up with no connection to the Muslim faith. But five months before his trip, he went through a dramatic and sudden conversion after stumbling on a religious website.
Barely half a year later, he was making his way north through Kenya into the vast unknown.
As he travelled, Baxam kept his head down, stopping merely to eat and pray at mosques. He had good reason to be careful: he was heading towards one of the world’s most anarchic conflict zones in a country that had been in the throes of an extreme Islamist insurgency for several years.
Once inside Somalia, he planned to live under al-Shabaab – a group designated by Washington as a terrorist organisation which practices a very strict form of Islamunder the religious law of sharia.
The stakes were high. US and Kenyan authorities worked closely together to intercept any movement across the border from al-Shabaab members, and Baxam had a taste of those security efforts as he sat on the bus going north. He later told the FBI there were posters all along the route telling people to contact police should they see anyone acting strangely. He must have looked suspicious himself, he said, given what was about to happen.
Soon after the bus pulled out, a man boarded and gently began asking Baxam questions. Where was he going? Did he speak the local dialect? Was there family nearby?
Baxam thought to himself: I’m in luck, here’s someone who wants to help me. It didn’t quite turn out like that. Not long after, the bus was surrounded by Kenyan police who swarmed onboard and took him away on suspicion of terrorism.
At 7am on a Monday morning, 11 days after Craig Baxam was hauled off the bus, the phone rang at Deanna Baxam’s house in Atlanta, more than 8,000 miles away. It was the Baltimore field office of the FBI. Her son, she was told, had been detained in Kenya and was in a Nairobi jail.
That was all they said. Nothing about how long he’d been held, where he’d been, or what treatment he had endured.
The following day, 4 January 2012, two FBI agents from the Atlanta division came knocking on Deanna Baxam’s door. They asked whether she was willing to pay for her son’s plane ticket home. When she inquired whether he had been charged with any crime, they said no, so she readily agreed, thinking Craig would soon be back with her.
“They said: ‘We would like to bring him home to you, but you have to pay the airfare.’ So I gave them my charge card and they put a $3,000 ticket on it,” Baxam said in the course of a three-hour interview with the Guardian in her home in the Atlanta suburbs.
On 6 January 2012, she began the long drive to Maryland to meet her son as he flew into Baltimore Washington International airport. She was apprehensive, but happy he was safe and coming home. But somewhere on the interstate, another call came in from the FBI. Craig’s plane had already landed, they told her. He had been re-arrested as he set foot on US soil and taken off to a federal institution.
He was charged with attempting to provide material support to al-Shabaab, the designated terrorist organisation, and informed that he faced a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
Of all the many things that have happened to Deanna Baxam since that day, having the FBI asking her to pay for her son’s plane ticket so he could be flown into the waiting claws of the US justice system perhaps hurts the most.
“I’m very angry about that. They used me as an American citizen, had me spend private funds to conduct law enforcement activities on behalf of the FBI. That’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is this: my government screwed my son and made me pay for it.”
She may not have realized it fully at that time, but Deanna Baxam had just been sucked into one of the defining conflicts of the modern age: religious fundamentalism versus the US national security apparatus.
On the one hand, she now had a son who professed to be a devout Muslim and who felt such a fierce commitment to his newly discovered faith that he was prepared to leave his family and radically change his life to practice it. On the other hand, she also had to deal with seemingly duplicitous anti-terrorist agents within the FBI who were bearing down on her child with the full might of the world’s only superpower.
She was caught between two utterly bewildering worlds, and her initial reaction was one of disbelief. This didn’t happen to a family like hers. “I thought our family did everything right, everything that would keep us out of the government’s clutches,” she said.
Deanna was born in Nebraska, a US citizen, but she was raised in Jamaica to Jamaican parents. She returned to the US after completing her chemistry degree and went on to marry Carl Baxman, an American Trinidadian who worked for a defense contractor. They had two sons, the youngest of whom, Craig, was born in 1987.
There was always something special about Craig, she said. He was creative, outgoing, smart. He also had an obsessional quality, as smart kids often do. Passions would flare up, burn brightly and then fizzle out in quick succession. “One day when he was about 10, he wanted to learn Hangul, so he visited our Korean neighbors every day – he was a real pest. That was typical: he wanted to learn the piano so he would go at it for days and days, and then it was done.”
Along with that intensity came what she describes as a purist streak. “There was no grey for him: it was either black or white, right or wrong. Nothing in between. When things were shoved into the in-between, he couldn’t deal with it.”
There were other difficulties. He once said to his mother he thought he had attention deficit disorder, though she couldn’t see it. He also took the divorce of his parents badly. They separated when Craig was eight years old and a few years after that Deanna moved away from Maryland to New Jersey, leaving her son largely in the care of his father.
The internal struggle reflected itself in Craig’s education. He flunked out of college before the end of freshman year, and then flunked out of community college. Deanna kept asking him what he was going to do with his life, a question which he answered, to her shock and dismay, by signing up for the US military. He enlisted in 2007, telling Deanna that he wanted to defend America in the wake of 9/11. After eight months’ training in advanced cryptology and intelligence, he was posted to Baghdad.
Until he joined the army, Craig had been what his mother describes as “very clean. Didn’t drink or do drugs. Never. He had never been in trouble of any kind and had no criminal convictions or arrest record.” She doesn’t know what happened to him in Iraq – to this day he refuses to talk about it – but she does know that he came back a changed person.
“As a mother, it bothers me that I lent my son to the army and they didn’t give him back to me. I still don’t have him back. I raised nice, middle-class children, sent them to music lessons, Catholic school, and then he just came back different.”
Having never smoked, Craig now consumed cigarettes, marijuana and K2 (synthetic marijuana, which at the time of his arrest was a legal substance). He began drinking heavily, another first.
Deanna Baxam is convinced her son displayed classic PTSD symptoms. In between flashes of anger, he was withdrawn and disconnected. She had made his bedroom welcoming for his homecoming, but instead of sleeping in the new bed she’d bought for him, he insisted on lying on the floor with his head on his service bag, as though he were still in the war zone.
He signed up for one more tour of duty, this time to South Korea. The night before he was dispatched, she recalls that Craig would not move from a chair in the kitchen. “I went to bed, and I left him sitting there in the chair in the dark all night. That wasn’t right. There was something bad going on.”
Amid all this turbulence, Craig Baxam turned to the Muslim faith that was to become his salvation and his undoing.
While stationed in South Korea, he began exploring religions. He would send his mother emails asking existential questions such as “do you believe there’s only one God?” or comparing Christianity with Islam. She was impressed and glad he was nurturing his spiritual side.
But when he got off the plane on his return in July 2011, she knew something major had happened. He had grown a beard and was wearing a kufi and robe. She was stunned, and let it show. “Oh my God, what happened to you? Why would you even travel looking like that?” she said.
“Mom, I’m a Muslim now,” he replied.
She ran out of the airport, sat on a bench and cried.
It wasn’t the faith that distressed her: they had raised their children to be believers, and Deanna Baxam herself is a Pentecostal Christian. It was the feeling of abandonment.
“Faith is important to me,” she said. “But we raised them in a certain tradition, so to have him leave Christianity was like a rejection of the family. I was angry about it for a long time. I told him, ‘I’m as devout as you are, but we are on different tracks and you are separating our family.’”
According to an affidavit given by an FBI agent, Craig Baxman converted about a week to 10 days before he quit the army in South Korea. There seems to have been no grooming involved by any individual or organization: Baxam had been surfing the internet and had come across a website that talked about the Day of Judgment – it spoke to him and made him hungry for more. Almost instantly he was praying five times a day and devouring books on Islam.
Back in the US, he regularly tried to convert his own mother, too. Sometimes he would say to her: “Mom, I respect your right to have different faith, but I’m worried you are going to hell when you die.”
She tried to be as accepting as she could, hoping that his new obsession would fade away. It didn’t. In December 2011 she got a call from Craig’s father saying that her son had disappeared.
Al-Shabaab is one of the world’s most feared Islamist militant groups. Since Craig Baxam’s attempt to live under its control, the extremists have carried out some of the most brutal terrorist attacks in living memory, including the 2013 Westgate mall attack in Nairobi in which at least 67 people were killed.
The group emerged in about 2006 out of the anarchy and chaos that has gripped Somalia, a “failed state”. At the time that Baxam was making his way through Kenya, carrying only a few hundred dollars in his pocket, a prayer mat and a copy of the Qu’ran, al-Shabaab militants were being forced out of the Somali capital Mogadishu but were still in control of large swathes of the south of the country.
It was these al-Shabaab-controlled areas of Somalia that Craig Baxam was determined to reach. Using the internet, he had identified three places in the world where, in his view, a Muslim could conform fully to the tenets of his new religion under sharia law.
The trio of locations that he chose as his possible future havens are among the harshest environments – both physically and spiritually – on the globe. They were the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan; the southern islands of the Philippines, where an extremist group was trying to gain a foothold on Mindanao; and the al-Shabaab parts of Somalia.
US prosecutors presented in court documents a psychological profile of Baxam in which they alleged that he had been aware of al-Shabaab’s terrorist designation and the insurgency it was actively fighting at the time within Somalia. Based on interrogations with him while he was held captive by Kenyan police with FBI agents in attendance, they claimed that he had become hostile towards America, which he regarded as oppressive to Muslims.
“To live as a Muslim in the US you need to compromise,” the FBI agent’s affidavit said, paraphrasing Craig Baxam’s alleged position. “He finds the constant playing of music and display of pictures disrespectful. Only Allah can create images.”
The affidavit went on to allege that Baxam was prepared to take up arms and fight against the US if it attacked al-Shabaab:
Baxam saw himself dying in Somalia. It might be from malaria or from being hit by a rocket. Only Allah could know. Baxam never intended to return from Somalia, he was ‘looking for dying with a gun in my hand’. He would be happy to die defending Islam; being mowed down or hit with a cruise missile. If someone dies defending Islam, they are guaranteed a place in Jannah [paradise].
It’s impossible to really know what was going through Craig Baxam’s head as he was making his fateful journey. In a recent letter to the Guardian from his current prison cell in Beaumont, Texas, he declined to be interviewed, writing that “despite the grief the US government has caused me, I am a private man and I also consider what happened to me to be far more insignificant than other cases”.
But there are clues that suggest that the US prosecutors’ account of his intentions was overblown. The federal judge assigned to the case, Frederick Motz, cast doubt on the state’s claim that Baxam had terrorist inclinations.
“According to what he told FBI agents,” Motz wrote in a court memo, “it appears to me that defendant had not formed an intention to fight for al-Shabaab in any offensive capacity when he travelled to Somalia. To the contrary, all the statements seem to reveal is that defendant wanted to live in a Muslim country under Sharia law and that if the country in which he was residing was attacked, he would then defend that country.”
For Deanna Baxam, the account given by the state – that her son was a callous terrorist-sympathiser intent on betraying his own country – just didn’t ring true. As she sees it, it was his innate purist streak that was leading him on, not any political sensibility. “He believed that the Qu’ran says that if you live in an oppressive regime where Islam is not in control, like America, then you should make hijrah. So he set off for Somalia.”
A mother is not the most dispassionate witness. But Deanna Baxam also has a lawyer’s eye, having retrained in law several years ago. She has identified aspects of the case that make her deeply uneasy about the justice served. There were the 11 days between her son’s arrest on the bus in northern Kenya, and his return to US soil – what happened in that period, how many times was he interrogated, and what role did the FBI play in the process? Why were none of the interrogations recorded on tape so that the FBI’s account of what her son told them could be verified?
She is alarmed by the fact that her own government deployed its considerable resources to track and detain her child on foreign soil. Instead of providing him with the care he needed as a disturbed veteran who had seen tours of duty in Iraq and South Korea and displayed symptoms of PTSD, they left him to his own devices.
“I didn’t know any of this stuff happened,” she said. “They track US nationals in Kenya? To say I’m outraged doesn’t seem enough of a response. When you are a US national overseas I thought the job of the government was to help protect you, not to collaborate with the Kenyan authorities in tracking you down.”
She is also dismayed by what she believes was the willful denial of her son’s first amendment right to practice his religion. “America has a history of interning the Japanese, of persecuting people because of their religious beliefs. How is that different here? How can we imprison somebody who has no demonstrated guilty intent or action – there was none of that? And yet he is rounded up and sent to prison.”
Craig Baxam was sentenced in January 2014 to seven years in prison, with five years of post-prison supervision added on. The sentence flowed from a plea bargain in which the US government agreed to drop the main terrorist charges against him in return for a guilty plea to a lesser charge: that he had knowingly disposed of records that could be used in a terrorism investigation. Before leaving for Kenya, he had destroyed his personal computer and thrown it in a dumpster, allegedly to foil any future FBI probe.
Today, Craig Baxam, now 29, is approaching his fifth anniversary behind bars, some of which time he has spent in solitary confinement.
His father, Carl Baxam, lost his job with the defense contractor after 24 years of loyal service once news of the case broke. Carl died last year while Craig was still in prison.
Deanna Baxam had to change the church in which she worshipped because she felt stigmatized by others in the congregation. She lost a few corporate contracts as a lawyer, as well as some professional friendships, after people dropped out of sight without saying a word.
She says she still wrestles with the fallout of it all. She travels to visit her son whenever she can, and they exchange letters regularly. In his correspondence and phone calls, Craig continues to talk about Islam fervently, and makes clear that his long-term goal remains to live under sharia law, though no longer in Somalia.
He signs his letters “Esmail the American”. In them, he’ll weave in and out of a discussion of his faith. Allah will appear in one sentence, a joke about his mother’s basketball team the Chicago Bulls the next. From time to time, he’ll make another stab at getting Deanna to convert to Islam.
As a mother, she has had to accept that there’s a side to her son that is now beyond her reach. “There is a part of me that says, ‘How could this have happened, what would make you so driven that you would want to go and live with al-Shabaab?’ I can’t understand that.”
She has tried to reach out to other mothers in her position, so far without success. “People want to stay underground,” she said. “I mean, who wants to be known as the ‘mother of a terrorist’?”
If she had the chance to send a message to other mothers like her, trapped between religious fundamentalism and an overweaning government, what would she say?
“I’d say: ‘You are not alone. What has happened to you is beyond your imagination. But you are not alone.’”