Not so long ago, the young man accused of plotting to blow up a military recruiting station in Catonsville had a mundane job: selling children's clothes at Columbia 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 in the 5400 block of Baltimore National Pike.
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. "They will be killed until they stop waging war against … Islam."
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."
Few details have emerged about Martinez's background. He attended Prince George's County public schools, and the 2005 Laurel High School yearbook lists him as a member of that year's freshman class. It is not clear whether he graduated from the school.
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 mujahideen brothers," court records show.
According to state court records, he has faced criminal charges three times.
In 2006 he was charged with armed robbery and handgun offenses in Montgomery County. The outcome of that charge was unclear, though he was 16 at the time and the charges may have been transferred to juvenile court.
Two years later, he was charged with car theft in Prince George's County and theft under $100 in Montgomery. He was convicted on the lesser theft charge and received a 90-day suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay $500 in fines and $160 in restitution.
At some point, his mother became concerned with 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 mom said she tried to persuade her son not to convert to Islam. The woman, who would not give her name, said she's 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 — understands 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. "She will support everything I want to do."
His wife, identified on Facebook as Naimah Ismail-Hussain, did not respond to messages Wednesday. Her Facebook page lists her as a senior majoring in English and education at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. It also says she works as a circulation assistant, but a woman who answered the phone at the college library said Ismail-Hussain was not working Wednesday.