Thursday, 4:30 PM
Terror suspect with New Hampshire roots
By Charles A. Radin
METHUEN — Daniel Maldonado, a slender young man in his early 20s with tattoos and dreadlocks, entered the Selimiye Mosque in a densely populated neighborhood of central Methuen with a humble request for help converting to Islam.
But as his commitment to ever purer, more intense religious observance deepened over the next several years, he became critical of other Muslims’ observance of the faith, until the imam who helped him convert told him to refrain from judging others or to leave the mosque.
Maldonado, on the road to Islamic fundamentalism, which would ultimately lead him to Somalia, decided to leave.
Soner Uguz knew Maldonado from the beginning of his journey into Islam.
‘‘I met Danny the week he converted, about seven years ago,’’ said Uguz, whom mosque members yesterday called Maldonado’s best friend. ‘‘He was cool. He dressed in T-shirts and jeans and didn’t hide any of his tattoos. His hair was in dreadlocks. He was eager, and he had a lot of questions.’’
All that changed radically.
Last week in a federal court in Houston, where he had been living for a while before he went overseas, he became the first US citizen to be charged with participating in terrorist activities in Somalia.
Maldonado, who grew up in Pelham, N.H., and later lived in Methuen, became immersed in Islam and attended prayer sessions regularly at Selimiye Mosque. He began wearing traditional Arab clothing, including the galabeyah, an ankle-length gown with long sleeves that covered the tattoos on his arms. He struggled to grow the beard of a religious Muslim. When he could not, he blamed his Puerto Rican heritage, and began chastising fellow Muslims who could grow a full beard and chose not to.
His wife dressed in a burkah exposing only her eyes and wore gloves in public. The couple’s daughter, a toddler at the time, wore the hijab headcovering, though under most interpretations of Muslim law this practice is required only after a girl reaches puberty. They renamed their son, Anthony, as Mohammed.
He was no longer the eager and humble young man he had been when he entered the mosque for the first time around 2000 or 2001.
‘‘He was arrogant, he knew the book [the Koran] better than anyone,’’ Uguz said at the mosque yesterday afternoon after prayers. ‘‘He went from loving rap to hating poetry.’’
Another worshiper at the mosque, Matthew Yusuf Trombly — who like Maldonado is 28 and a convert to Islam from Christianity — said Maldonado fell victim to ‘‘the zeal of the convert.’’
Within the congregation, Trombly said, ‘‘the general attitude was that he was just learning Islam, and maybe trying to do too much too fast, and got confused.
Still, said Trombly, ‘‘he was friendly. He came across as a street kid, and that was charming in a way. You don’t run into kids like Danny Maldonado every day. He had a lot of charisma.
‘‘People say that when he first came he loved music and would talk about how much he loved rap,’’ Trombly said. ‘‘But by the time I really got to know him, in 2004, you would never mention music to him. You knew what you were going to get’’ — a lecture on sin.
Opinionated, outspoken, and charismatic also are the words chosen to describe Maldonado in his high school days by Dorothy Mohr, principal of Pelham High School in Pelham, N.H., where Maldonado dropped out in February 1997, during his junior year.
‘‘Danny was always an outspoken student — though I use the word ‘student’ lightly,’’ Mohr said. ‘‘He’d show up late for class, without the materials or homework, but he would know what we were talking about. Then he would go off on a tangent, and get adamant about it.’’
Maldonado’s intensity then was directed at political subjects, not religion, she said. He was not a member of a group and had no involvement in school activities that Mohr could recall. But, she said, ‘‘kids would willingly listen to him. They’d never say to him ‘be quiet, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He had charisma.’’
Maldonado also had brushes with the local police, but there was nothing serious, or suggestive of his alleged turn toward terrorism.
‘‘It was traffic violations and typical high school things, loud house parties and things like that,’’ said Captain Joseph Roark of the Pelham Police Department.
Still, Roark said, he wonders now what was going on in Maldonado’s head as he made his way through adolescence.
‘‘He was a bit detached, kind of distant,’’ Roark said.
Friends at the mosque also saw a dreamer in Maldonado. ‘‘He used to tell me he wanted to get a visa and live in Yemen because they spoke the purest Arabic there,’’ Uguz said. ‘‘We told him to cut it out — we never thought he’d do it, for the sake of the kids.’’
Maldonado did not go to Yemen to live. But in August 2005 he left Massachusetts and moved to Houston, then in November of that year he moved to Egypt with his wife and three children. A year later, according to an affidavit from the FBI agent who filed the terrorism charges against Maldonado in Houston last week, he moved to Somalia, where he underwent military training and studied bomb-making.
He is scheduled to appear in federal court to face those charges on Tuesday. Conviction could mean life imprisonment.
He said he would have ‘‘no problem’’ killing Americans because he was angry with the United States, according to an affidavit filed in US District Court, Southern District of Texas, and he had ‘‘no problem’’ with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Houston Chronicle and Houston station KHOU-TV said in a teamed report yesterday that Maldonado’s wife, Tamekia Cunningham, died of a high fever probably caused by malaria during the couple’s time in East Africa. The newspaper, which did not identify its sources of information, said that the couple’s children have been brought by US officials to their grandparents in New England.
Relatives of Maldonado who live in Londonderry, N.H., declined to comment about him yesterday.
The Muslims who gathered to talk about Maldonado after prayers in the Methuen mosque yesterday afternoon said they were worried that what Maldonado is alleged to have done would reflect badly, and unfairly, on Islam and on their mosque in particular.
‘‘We saw him as a person who was into studying, rather than physical jihad,’’ Trombly said. ‘‘But everything about him changed, so I can’t say I am completely surprised.’’