By Ed Pilkington
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 southern Somalia, 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.
Source: The guardian