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Officials Worry About Some Latino Converts To Islam
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Officials Worry About Some Latino Converts To Islam

National Security

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The FBI arrested another suspect yesterday in a terrorist plot. The man at the center of the case is Antonio Martinez. He's 21, a Muslim convert, who allegedly wanted to blow up a military recruitment center in Maryland. There are two things that make this case especially interesting to law enforcement. The first is that Martinez appears to have been radicalized here in the U.S. And the second is he's Latino. Latino converts to radical Islam have been connected to terrorism cases in this country with increasing frequency. And officials are trying to understand why. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI began tracking Antonio Martinez back in October. That's when he allegedly struck up a conversation with an FBI source and said he wanted to attack U.S. military personnel.

After taping hours of Martinez's conversations, the FBI ended up providing him with what he thought was a car bomb. He allegedly parked it outside an armed forces recruiting station in Catonsville, Maryland yesterday morning. And he was arrested after dialing a cell phone number that was supposed to detonate it.

The Martinez case is about more than just a sting operation. It's part of a broader effort to understand why a small number of Latinos in this country are turning to radical Islam.

Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Center for Strategic and International Studies): In some ways it's not the volume, necessarily. It's not like, you know, folks are worried about vast communities or sub-communities of Latinos joining al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Juan Zarate was a former deputy national security advisor in the Bush administration and is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. ZARATE: But I think it's the nature of the individuals who've actually been caught in this web.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Individuals involved in important cases. Like Jose Padilla, who pled guilty to training with al-Qaida. Or Daniel Maldonado, a Latino-American who was one of the first U.S. citizens to join an al-Qaida affiliate group in Somalia. Then there's Bryant Neal Vinas. He was from Long Island, also Latino, and found himself in al-Qaida's inner circle a couple of years ago. He talked to the group's leadership about how to attack the Long Island Railway. Again, terrorism expert Juan Zarate.

Mr. ZARATE: It's the nature of these individuals, but also their case studies -the substantive dimensions of their work and who they are in contact with and what they represent, that I think is why Latino converts have garnered some attention from counter terrorism analysts and the community.

TEMPLE-RASTON: One of the reasons these officials are interested is because al-Qaida appears to be. The terrorist group has recruited Latinos, assuming they could move around the United States without arousing suspicion.

Before yesterday's sting operation, the latest terrorism case involving a Latino happened over the summer. That's when two New Jersey men, Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte, were arrested as they boarded a plane for Somalia. They allegedly planned to join the ranks of a terrorist group there called al-Shabaab.

Mr. MITCH SILBER (New York Police Department): Carlos Almonte was of Dominican heritage. Naturalized U.S. citizen, also middle class family, father was a school bus driver and grew up in a Catholic family.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's the head of the New York Police Department's intelligence unit, Mitch Silber, briefing security officials on the case.

Mr. SILBER: Almonte, as he started to change, he dropped his non Muslim friends and his change was visible to others.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Almonte allegedly started hanging out with members of Revolution Muslim, an Islamist group in New York. And he joined their online chats. That's something he apparently had in common with the suspect in this latest case: Antonio Martinez.

The Internet is not the only place radicalizing these Latino converts. Authorities have been tracking an increasing number of Latino converts who embrace radical Islam in prison. The concern, says Juan Zarate, is that prison recruits will redirect their criminal energies and engage in terrorism.

Mr. ZARATE: So I think that it's in that intersection with prison radicalization, gang culture, religious zealotry that you have a potential problem. I wouldn't say there's a wave or a major concern, but there's certainly a potential problem that authorities watch for.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Antonio Martinez, the suspect in this latest case, is scheduled to appear in court again on Monday. He has yet to enter a plea.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.�

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