Monday, a Somali-born man who became a U.S. citizen is scheduled to appear in federal court to face charges of trying to set off a weapon of mass destruction.
April Baer reports 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud is the man FBI agents say planned a massive explosion at Portland’s annual holiday tree-lighting.
While the explosion never came to pass, the arrest sent a chill through the city.
In August of 2009, investigators intercepted a communication from Oregon to the Federally Administered Tribal areas of Northwest Pakistan.
It was from Mohamed Osman Mohamud, according to an affidavit filed Friday in federal court. The affidavit says Mohamud was writing to an unnamed “associate” – whether a U.S. government informant or unsuspecting jihadist, the FBI won’t say.
Once agents became aware of Mohamud, they watched him carefully. Art Balizan is Special-Agent in Charge for Portland’s FBI office.
Art Balizan: “That first conversation was roughly August of ’09, so we’re looking at a time frame of over a year, almost a year and a quarter. We moved on it at a pace that was dictated by the defendant.”
Ten months later, an FBI undercover agent contacted Mohamud, and started asking him what he was trying to accomplish.
Could the agent be of any help? In a series of meetings conducted at hotel rooms in Portland and Corvallis, two undercover agents recorded meetings as Mohamud laid out his idea: to set off an explosion at Portland’s annual holiday tree-lighting ceremony, the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Dwight Holton is the interim U.S. Attorney for Oregon. He stood Saturday before the 75-foot holiday tree that was the centerpiece of Mohamud’s plot. Holton says the alleged bomber was someone who was committed to his decision.
Dwight Holton “Someone who, over and over again, was given the opportunity, and frankly discouraged by the undercover officers, who repeatedly presented the consequences of what he wanted to do, and yet he insisted this was exactly what he wanted to do, and pressed forward.”
As the agents slowly worked to gain Mohamud’s trust, the FBI worked out an elaborate ruse to convince him he was part of a lethal scheme to kill thousands of people.
The affidavit tells how the agents one day took Mohamud to a secluded place in Lincoln County.
They showed him a device in a blue backpack, which they said was a smaller version of the bomb he would eventually detonate. That device was a dud.
The FBI’s Art Balizan describes the scene.
Art Balizan “It was very well protected by a perimeter of law enforcement, so that no one could wander in to the area.”
The agents helped Mohamud place the fake bomb, then led him away to show him how to use what he believed was a real detonator.
Art Balizan “I can tell you there were bomb technicians concealed in the area where the device was going to go off. That facilitated their ability to go in and switch the dummy device with a smaller device that would in fact detonate.”
Week after week, the agents’ gambit went on. Until finally, Friday night, Mohamud parked a white van at Yamhill and 6th Street as a crowd bustled into Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Bobby Ghaheri “I was a the tree lighting with my wife and daughter.”
Dr Bobby Ghaheri lives in northeast Portland. He had no idea that he was standing on the same corner where the van was parked.
Later that night, he saw news on Twitter about the plot, and Mohamud’s arrest at about 5:45 that night.
Ghaheri says he’s thinking a lot about what would have happened had the FBI not contacted Mohamud first.
Bobby Ghaheri “I have a 5-year old, and I explained I was coming down here to talk to you, we tell her what potentially would have happened, and in a very innocent way, she says, ‘Why would anyone want to do that?’”
Other Portlanders spending the weekend downtown were also mindful of the city’s close shave.
Sarah Lora of Southwest Portland was in the Square with her partner and kids Saturday.
She says she’s grateful to the FBI for its work. But she can’t help wonder about the ripple effect the bomb plot might have on the civil society Oregonians are so proud of.
She notes the increased security at some of the nation’s airports.
Sarah Lora “I get the sense people are just kind of resigned to the fact that we need to do this in order to be safe, and I feel like we should maintain some healthy skepticism about what’s happening.”
Bryan Nichols was down from Seattle this weekend visiting friends.
Bryan Nichols: “We were playing Wii in our hotel lobby and all these police cars started going by.”
Nichols says he thinks people in the Pacific Northwest shouldn’t assume attacks on American citizens will only happen in big cities like New York or LA. At the same time, he’s curious to see if the FBI’s investigative method holds up in court.
Bryan Nichols “People aren’t sympathetic to entrapment. Not for drug issues, not for terrorism issues.”
Mohamud will be arraigned in federal court. If his case doesn’t go to trial, Nichols’ theory may never get its test. But law enforcement officials don’t use the word entrapment when they talk about the threats that Americans like Mohamed Osman Mohamud pose.
Phillip Mudd is a senior Global Advisory for Oxford Analytica, with an extensive background in counterterrorism work with the FBI and the CIA.
Phillip Mudd “I think people misunderstand Al Qaeda as a terrorist organization. It’s not. It’s an organization that means to inspire revolution in people who believe as al-Qaeda believes, but may never have met an Al-Qaeda member.”
Mudd says it’s important to remember young men like Mohamud are not much different from kids swept up in other causes – they talk to other kids, in the echo-chamber environment of the internet.
They pose, he says, fundamental challenges for investigators who can’t use traditional intelligence methods to chase them.
As Portlanders process what led Mohamud down his path, they may also be reminded of how events in faraway places can hit close to home. Mayor Sam Adams has been involved in local government since the 80s.
He says he wants the city to take a realistic appraisal of the global environment, without losing its commitment to individual liberties and fair treatment.
Sam Adams “I’d rather be a city that’s vigilant about its safety, but also equally vigilant about being an open community, not living in fear, but being mindful, being smart.”
As Mohamud’s case enters the court system, he becomes one of a growing number of American immigrants charged with planning attacks within the country’s borders. This case will test how effective law enforcement efforts are in preventing those attacks.