Craig B. Baxam, 26, of Laurel, Md., was sentenced in a federal court in Baltimore Monday to seven years in prison on the charge of destroying records he thought could be used in a terrorism investigation, the Baltimore Sun reported.
Baxam's attorney argued her client want to practice Islam among other Muslims in Somalia and the First Amendment guaranteed his right to take action to do so.
The U.S. attorney's office countered Baxam wanted to fight and was prepared to die for al-Shabaab. Federal prosecutors at first charged Baxam with attempting to provide material support to al-Shabaab, which has been linked to al-Qaida and officials said was behind the deadly mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya, late last year.
After leaving the Army in 2011 and before he flew to Africa, Baxam destroyed his computer because he knew the FBI could track his computer activity, his plea agreement said. He was arrested in Kenya.
Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School who has examined the free-speech implications of terrorism prosecutions, told the Sun Baxam's argument rested on a sticky legal question.
"The question is, could you join without supporting?" Feldman said. "That's not entirely clear. Under the law, if you engaged in coordinated action designed to support al-Shabaab, even if you were not a member and even if your action was as a whole peaceful, you could be found guilty of providing material support."