Terror suspect's jihad comes at steep price | Chron.com - Houston Chronicle

Feb. 16, 2007, 4:55PM
Terrorist suspect's unexpected journey to Houston jail
Man known for outspokenness, not violence, lost wife amid alleged al-Qaida training

Daniel Joseph Maldonado told authorities he was ready to kill Americans for his political beliefs. But the true casualty of his jihad may have been his own wife.

Maldonado, the first American to be charged with training to fight with al-Qaida in Somalia, took his wife and three children with him. There, Tamekia Cunningham succumbed to a high fever that likely was caused by malaria. U.S. officials flew the couple's three children home to their grandparents in New England after Maldonado was captured in Kenya.

And Maldonado, who survived the war and his own bout with malaria, now sits in a jail in Houston facing up to life in prison, accused of studying with a bomb maker.

A Muslim convert who goes by Daniel Aljughaifi, Maldonado was "Danny" to his high school classmates in Pelham, N.H., a snow-covered land of white pines and sugar maples, where the Revolutionary War more than two centuries ago seems far closer to home than war-torn Africa. Even as a teenager, Maldonado was known for his strong beliefs.

"He was very into his views and political stands," Jessica Gillis, a classmate at Pelham High School, said via e-mail to the Houston Chronicle. She stressed that he never talked about religion. "He was not at all violent and only debated his views and stood up for them when in political debates during history class."

Gillis added that she remembers Maldonado as "friendly, smart, intelligent and outgoing."

Dorothy Mohr, an English teacher when Maldonado was at the school and now the principal, agreed that he was talkative and opinionated.

"He always had something to say about whatever," she said. "Danny was a nice kid. He probably wasn't as into his studies as (most)."

Disappeared

If Maldonado was not much of a student, he made a lasting impression on his teachers and classmates.

When he entered Pelham High in 1995, he was the only student there in memory to wear his hair in dreadlocks. His freshman yearbook photo shows a shy smile on his face. In the next year's photo, his expression has hardened into a tough-guy stare.

By 1997, his junior year, Maldonado had disappeared from both the yearbook and the high school.

Maldonado, now 28, attended the school in this sleepy bedroom community named for Henry Pelham, the British prime minister when the town was incorporated in 1746. Large wood-frame houses, some dating to the early 1700s, dot the hills and valleys. Most residents commute to jobs in nearby Massachusetts.

Ninety-four percent of the 700 students at the high school are white. Maldonado and his siblings would have stood out just because they were Hispanic. But though yearbook photos show Maldonado's two brothers with short hair and preppy clothes, Danny tried to look different.

Mohr said Danny is the only student she can recall ever having dreadlocks.

"That was his identification statement," she said. "I don't know if you've noticed, but we pretty much all look the same. Danny was a memorable character."

Classmates remember Maldonado as having a good heart and being outspoken.

Maldonado had an older brother, Scott, who one classmate recalls was popular and a star of the soccer team. Scott had a shock of curly hair in front, with the sides and back cut short.

A younger brother, Josh, wore glasses and had very short hair. Josh was involved in student government and on the homecoming court.

Faculty members also remembered that Danny had an older sister, Tamara, who, like Danny, did not enjoy school.

Classmate Gregory Atwood recalls Maldonado hung out with a hip-hop clique in puffy coats, headphones and jeans so baggy they were falling down. They tried to act like "tough, urban kids," Atwood said.

"It was kind of a joke to really be like that in Pelham because it's white suburbia," he said.

Atwood, who is a firefighter in Pelham, said Maldonado was loud and acted out a bit but was also "very respectful and pleasant."

"He had his problems, but nothing like this," said Ron Santagati, a substitute teacher who occasionally had all the Maldonado youths in class. "He didn't like school."

Better life

Maldonado's parents, Jose and Rena Maldonado, now live about 15 miles north of Pelham, in Londonderry, N.H. Jose Maldonado spoke briefly to a reporter for the Eagle-Tribune newspaper Wednesday while shoveling snow from his walkway. Jose said that Daniel, his wife and the couple's children had moved to Somalia in search of better living conditions for Muslims. Jose said he knew nothing of his son's activities in Africa.

Before moving to Houston in August 2005, Daniel Maldonado lived in several places in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

He decided to go to Somalia to wage jihad, which authorities say he described during an interview as "raising the word of Allah, uppermost, by speaking and fighting against all those who are against the Islamic state." He chose to help Somalia because he said it is the only legitimate Islamic state, authorities say.

"If Americans came, I would fight them, too," Maldonado allegedly said. He would have "no problem" with fighting or killing Americans, nor with the Sept. 11 attacks. He also allegedly said he would be willing to become a suicide bomber if he were wounded.

He is accused of training with al-Qaida from September until January and studying bomb making. He faces life imprisonment if convicted on the weapon-of-mass-destruction charge. Training with a terrorist organization carries up to 10 years in prison.

Training camps

He came to the attention of federal investigators while living in southwest Houston. According to the criminal complaint against him, Maldonado is thought to have moved to Egypt in November 2005, then to Somalia a year later.

Armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, he spent months in southern training camps where al-Qaida fighters were present. In January, Maldonado was trying to flee Somalia when he was captured by government soldiers across the border in Kenya. It was there that he encountered U.S. investigators, including a Houston police officer working on the case as an interrogator.

In Kenya, FBI officials plucked Maldonado and his children. Agents made sure the three children made it to the United States safely.

"FBI agents escorted them from Kenya until the time they were met by both set of grandparents," Houston FBI spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap said Thursday. The youngest child may have been born last summer while Maldonado and his wife were in Egypt.

She declined to comment about why Maldonado was in Houston because the case is part of an ongoing investigation.

Rodwan Saleh, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, said the enthusiasm of recent converts can be exploited by some extreme groups. And though he did not know Maldonado, Saleh said the man may have been steered to the darker sides of Islam.

Blog and Internet message-board posts indicate Maldonado's eagerness to learn Arabic.

"As new people accept Islam, they need to have someone who truly teaches them the essence of the religion," Saleh said. "Someone who is now highly spirited or naive or ignorant, someone can really take advantage of that."

Saleh said he encourages any Muslims who know Maldonado or his circle of friends to work with authorities.

"It is our duty to be cooperative so this does not happen again," he said. "If there is any recruiting through him or someone else, we need to know."

Graves reported from Pelham, N.H. Staff writer Robert Crowe in Houston contributed.

cindy.george@chron.com