Court was not in session Tuesday at the trial of Mohamed Mohamud, because one of the attorneys is sick. The 21-year-old defendant is accused of trying to use a weapon of mass destruction at a 2010 event in downtown Portland. Federal attorneys are making a case against Mohamud as a would-be terrorist who was only caught when the FBI intervened. Mohamud’s attorneys say undercover agents entrapped their client. OPB’s April Baer has been covering the trial. She and OPB host Beth Hyams took this break in the trial as a chance to catch up about how the case is unfolding.
Beth Hyams: April, can you tell us what the courtroom atmosphere is like?
April Baer: Sure, but first, full disclosure: I haven’t physically seen a lot of it. Much of last week’s testimony came from a pair of undercover FBI employees. Judge Garr King cleared the court except for principal attorneys and the jury. So journalists sat in another courtroom a few floors up, watching a closed circuit TV feed of the attorneys. We heard it all, but couldn’t see the the undercover agents, or any jury reactions.
So, with that in mind, court sessions have been orderly. They’re sombre - perhaps not surprising given the subject of the trial. There are no phones or computers allowed in the courtroom, so you’ve got a handful of people sitting in a very quiet room, doing a lot of intense listening.
BH: Who’s been coming to watch the case?
AB: Depending on the date, I’ve seen anywhere from 20 to 40 people attending. Some are clearly members of the Somali-American community. They sit together, generally. Sometimes they break for prayers in the lobby outside the courtroom. Osman and Mariam Barre, the defendants’ parents, have been there every single day. They also sit in the overflow area, with reporters and other observers.
I’ve met some people who are just concerned citizens. They wanted to watch some of the testimony. Many of them are retirees.
And there are anywhere from three to ten reporters at any given time, scribbling madly. That’s because recording equipment isn’t allowed, and we can’t bring laptops to take notes. There are about four of us there every day.
The U.S. Marshals service is issuing three kinds of badges, for family, the public and media, so it’s easy to tell who’s who. Most of the people in the gallery are pretty quiet, although one woman was barred from the trial last week. According to a statement filed by a federal marshal, she was taking pictures— strictly forbidden. The marshal also says she was talking to Mohamud’s family in a way that made them uncomfortable.
BH: How are the two sides developing their arguments?
AB: Prosecutors have played hours of surveillance audio and video. They produced emails showing Mohamed Mohamud corresponding with people the FBI characterized as dangerous. One of his contacts asks if Mohamud can come to Yemen. Mohamud writes back, “Yes, that’d be wonderful. Just tell me what I need to do.” Nothing specific is mentioned, but the FBI was concerned enough to jump in, assuming the role of an Al Qaeda recruiter.
They’ve shown the jury articles Mohamud wrote for English-language magazines aimed at would-be jihadis, to support allegations he led a double life: active, social, mainstream Muslim student by day, online jihadi by night.
The prosecutors present clip after clip of the defendant talking about his willingness to set off a massive bomb, where he says he wants to see people die. We’ve heard him agreeing to take on the tasks his contacts set for him - buying pieces of bomb equipment, renting an apartment, etc. At several points, Youssef, one of the undercover agents, has testified that he was worried. He thought Mohamud was excited enough about the plot he might act alone.
They take Mohamud out in the woods and set off a trial explosive - it’s actually a dummy bomb built by the FBI. He says, “[Praise be to God], that was good.”
He calls the dummy bomb built by the FBI “beautiful.” And we hear him, so eager to key in the code he believes will detonate the dummy bomb at Pioneer Courthouse Square, that he punches in the numbers twice.
Time after time, we’ve heard the agents in recordings tell Mohamud it’s OK to opt out at any time, and he stays silent.
Prosecutors are trying to give the jury numerous examples of Mohamud’s willingness to take part in the plot, to show this young man was going to get involved in serious trouble if left to his own devices.
BH: And the defense?
AB: They’ve aggressively cross-examined witnesses about whether Mohamud would have done all this on his own, without prompting. They’ve pointed out he never says anything about plots or bombs before the second meeting with the undercover agents. He actually brushed them off the first time the agents tried to meet with him, saying he’d get in touch with them when he was in a position to help.
Defense attorneys have played a lot of their own samples from the surveillance tapes. They include Mohamud making long rambling statements, or showing ineptitude at carrying out agents’ instructions.
The defense outlined subtle conversational patterns in which the undercover agents offered Mohamud an out, then quickly changed the subject.
They’ve tried to show the agents appealing to Mohamud’s faith. They’ve shown emails before the sting in which Mohamud writes longingly of how lost he feels, how much he wants to go live in a Muslim country, asking a friend for advice.
The defense played recordings of agents praising Mohamud extensively for his long religious poems, telling him he may be in line for some kind of leadership or inspirational role overseas after the operation is done.
There was one line of questioning in which defense attorney Lisa Hay seemed to be piecing together a sort of Mohamud investigation blooper reel.
She pointed out the undercovers are supposed to be global jihadists. They tell Mohamud they’ve been waiting for an opportunity to do a plot like this “like a kid waiting for Christmas.”
One agent, on seeing some police cars tells Mohamud, “We can’t have you getting arrested just yet.”
The point she’s trying to make is that Mohamud was so clueless, he didn’t even catch the slips.
Again, it’s hard to know what the jury makes of these arguments so far.
BH: Anything special going on outside of court?
AB: The attorneys have been sparring in filings about an email. Prosecutors say they ran across it in preparing a witness. They produced it the day before jury selection started. An FBI agent sent an email months and months before the under cover operation began, noting what he called “[Mohamud’s] fear of police finding him with something illegal, and his frequent marijuana use,” and suggesting he might be an ideal candidate to approach. The jury has yet to see this, but court filings indicate there was conversation among FBI agents about six months before the sting operation in which they talked about his immatur[ity] and emotional instability”… another email calls him “unreliable in almost everything he does.”
Again, it remains to be seen if these emails will be produced for the jury to view.
BH: Thanks, April
AB: Glad to do it.
April Baer is covering the Mohamud trial for OPB. You can reach her at email@example.com.Find more Mohamud trial coverage here.