BOMBING SUSPECT’S CONVERSION A MYSTERY TO MANY

BALTIMORE • Not so long ago, the young man accused of plotting to blow up a military recruiting station in Catonsville, Md., had a mundane job: selling children’s clothes at a mall.

When he was hired as a sales associate about a year ago, Antonio Martinez was polite, hardworking — and a newly baptized Christian, a former co-worker recalled Wednesday. He seemed like a typical young adult working a typical retail job.

Then one day he surprised co-workers by declaring that he had converted to Islam.

“Within a few weeks he has a floor mat down in the back room praying to Mecca, telling us he’s going to a mosque and converting to Islam,” the former colleague said. She insisted on anonymity because she is not authorized by her employer to speak publicly and because she fears for her family’s safety.

The sudden change of faith is among the many mysteries surrounding Martinez, 21, who is also known as Muhammad Hussain. He was charged Wednesday with attempting to detonate what he thought was a vehicle bomb at the Armed Forces Career Center west of Baltimore.

For reasons that remain shrouded, federal authorities say Martinez not only embraced Islam recently but grabbed hold of a radical interpretation of the religion — one that exalts violence against adherents of other faiths as a righteous path to glory.

The FBI says it secretly recorded Martinez talking about killing American service members. “Every soldier that we see in uniform will be killed on the spot, Insha’Allah,” or God willing, he said, according to court records.

Martinez resisted his mother’s entreaties for him to “be like everybody else,” he said in another conversation recorded by the FBI. And on the Internet, where Martinez advocated extremism, a Facebook “friend” identified as his brother-in-law tried without apparent success to temper his vitriol.

Martinez, who has a round face and scraggly facial hair, described himself this way on the social networking site: “IM just a yung brotha from the wrong side of the tracks who embraced Islam.” Liberally mixing slang spelling with Muslim terms, he said “we gotta rise up” and “continue the establishment of Islam on the earth.”

Martinez attended Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland, and the 2005 Laurel High School yearbook lists him as a member of that year’s freshman class.

Though he said in court Wednesday that he worked in construction, he also claimed in recorded conversations not to take regular jobs because he knew that tax revenue “goes to the military to fight our mujahedeen brothers,” court records show.

According to state records, Martinez has a criminal record.

In February 2008, Martinez was charged with theft from a Safeway supermarket in Rockville. He pleaded guilty in March 2008. According to charging documents, Martinez conspired with someone named “Ace” to steal $160.

Martinez was given a 90-day suspended sentence and six months’ probation and was ordered to pay restitution. According to the state Division of Parole and Probation, Martinez did not pay any of the $160 restitution.

Later that month, Martinez was charged in Prince George’s County with car theft, but the charges were dropped when the victim did not appear in court.

At some point, his mother became concerned about his increasingly fervent religious path.

“She wants me to be like everybody else, being in school, working,” he said earlier this month, according to court records. “For me it’s different. I have this zeal for deen” — a word that can mean “religion” or “way of life” — “and she doesn’t understand that.”

On Thursday, a woman who identified herself as Martinez’s mother said she had tried to persuade her son not to convert to Islam. The woman, who would not give her name, said she was a “devout American,” according to The Associated Press, and is upset and embarrassed by her son’s actions.

By contrast, Martinez said his wife — whom he married last summer, according to a message she posted on Facebook — understood his desire to “fight jihad,” a phrase sometimes interpreted as holy war. “She said she doesn’t want to stop me,” he said, according to court records.

Martinez’s public Facebook page provides a window into his views, which appear to have been formed by the time of his first post, in August: “When are these crusaders gonna realize they cant win?”

Sometimes his posts were unremarkable. On Sept. 14: “thanks 4 da happy bdays everybody.”

More common were postings of videos that glorified “jihad” and statements that praised, among others, Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to last year’s shooting at Fort, Hood, Texas, that killed 13.

Last week, in a recorded conversation that is detailed in court documents, Martinez sounded content with his choices. “Glad I am not like everyone else my age, 21 — going out, having fun, be in college, all that stuff. That’s not me … that not what Allah has in mind for me.”

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