Geoff Norcross: FBI agents involved in the investigation of Mohamed Mohamud took the stand Monday. Their testimony was aimed at showing the young man arrested for a plot to bomb Pioneer Courthouse Square was prepared to commit mass murder. Cross examination focused on exploring how the FBI may have drawn Mohamud in for the sting, and whether that constituted entrapment. OPB’s April Baer has been at the trial. She joins me now with an update. April, who was on the stand yesterday?
April Baer: Prosecutors called FBI Special Agent Miltiadis Trousas as their first witness. He ran the undercover arm of the investigation, and he talked a lot about how it began. We know investigators found out a guy wanted by the Saudi government, Amro Alali, was emailing someone with an IP address in Beaverton. That address, it turned out, belonged to Mohamed Mohamud, age 17.
Geoff Norcross: Why would the FBI care who Mohamud was emailing?
April Baer: Special Agent Trousas talked about how Alali was wanted for alleged links with terrorist organizations. That’s all we know. He’s being held in Saudi Arabia now. The email trail gave the American agents the idea Alali was trying to get Mohamud to come over to Yemen. For what? Emails between Alali and Mohamud emails aren’t explicit. In fact, Trousas says, that was part of what got their attention. Agents felt the two were using coded language, talking about Islamic landmarks that were nowhere near Alali’s location in Pakistan. And they knew what Mohamud had been writing articles for a jihadi magazine. So in December of 2009, Alali gives Mohamud an address to contact a man the FBI says was an Al-Qaeda recruiter. FBI agents say they need to move in and intercept Mohamud.
Geoff Norcross: What did the defense have to say about this?
April Baer: Plenty. The cross-examination started out getting Trousas to concede that, at one point in this email trail, Mohamud had replied to a spam email thinking it might be the contact he’d been promised to direct him on getting to Yemen. This seems intended to undermine the idea of Mohamud as knowing, capable, AND potentially dangerous.
Also, lead defense council Steve Sady kept hammering at Special Agent Trousas and another agent, about the psychological design of their operation. He grilled Trousas about the email he wrote saying the bureau was moving to, quote, “target Mohamud”. The agents didn’t concede much. But Sady didn’t let up. Had Trousas seen the email from another agent calling Mohamud “vulnerable” and “conflicted”? Yes, Trousas eventually said, but that was why the FBI had to step in.
And why, Sady asked, had the FBI used so much overtly religious language in its email overtures to such a conflicted young man? Trousas finally said, “What were we supposed to do? Say, ‘We’re the FBI, we want to meet with you’?” That got the biggest laugh of the day.
Geoff Norcross: Did either of the undercover agents who dealt with Mohamud make an appearance?
April Baer: Yes, in a manner of speaking. An undercover FBI employee, who went by the name Youssef took the stand late in the afternoon. The jury got to see him, but the public had to listen to him over a video feed, with no view of his face.
We learned a lot about Youssef today. He lives in California. He’s worked for the FBI since 2004. Before that, he was a software engineer. He’s had training in undercover work, but he’s not a full-blown FBI agent.
In his time with the FBI, he’s worked on one other case as a face-to-face contact for suspects, and an online contact in several other cases. He was born overseas in an undisclosed Arabic-speaking country, and came to the U.S. when he was sixteen. He has no trace of an accent I could hear. We don’t know his ethnicity or religion.
Youssef talked about his email exchanges with Mohamud. He said he felt religious language and personal compliments built Mohamud’s trust. He described their early meetings at the Embassy Suites in downtown Portland.He did say he thought, through these first few meetings, Mohamud “wasn’t really willing to martyr himself”.
Geoff Norcross: Did the defense pursue that?
April Baer: They haven’t had a chance to cross-examine Youssef yet.
Geoff Norcross: Any chance for the public to get more of a flavor of these undercover meetings?
April Baer: Actually, we started watching footage of the meetings, but it was just preliminary stuff of the undercover employees and Mohamud getting takeout and getting to know each other. We’ll see more tape tomorrow.
Geoff Norcross: Anything else going on we should know about?
April Baer: One thing: yesterday the jury sent a letter to Judge Garr King, asking for a written definition of entrapment. The concept came up several times in opening statements, and jurors wanted to know what they’re supposed to be looking for. But Judge King decided it was best to wait until jury instructions, which come after testimony and just before deliberations. He said he thought it would be important for the jury to hear that definition in the context of all the other instructions.
Geoff Norcross: Thanks, April.
April Baer: Glad to do it.