Teen held in alleged Portland bomb plot
In August, the FBI says, 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud told two men who claimed to be Al Qaeda operatives that he had considered violent jihad since he was 15, and that he now was ready to commit mass slaughter.
Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia, said he wanted to set off a bomb during the lighting of a giant Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving in an outdoor plaza in downtown Portland, Ore. The festive ceremony on the busiest shopping day of the year normally draws thousands of people.
“You know, the streets are packed,” said Mohamud, at the time a student at Oregon State University in Corvallis. When one of the men responded that “a lot of children” would attend, according to an FBI affidavit, he replied, “Yeah, I mean, that’s what I’m looking for.”
Mohamud — tall, thin and known for enjoying rap music and pickup basketball — reportedly shrugged off concerns about security at the event, explaining: “They don’t see it as a place where anything will happen.... It’s on the West Coast, it’s in Oregon, and Oregon’s like you know, nobody ever thinks about it.”
But the two men were undercover FBI agents, and audio and video recorders captured that conversation and many others like it. Mohamud now sits in federal custody — the latest alleged domestic terrorist to fall for an elaborate FBI sting — after months of secret surveillance and a grisly plot worthy of Jack Bauer.
A 38-page FBI affidavit released Saturday paints Mohamud as highly determined and deadly serious. He is charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. He is due in court Monday.
“The threat was very real,” said Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon. “Our investigation shows that Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale.”
According to the FBI, they arrested Mohamud after he dialed a cellphone that he thought would detonate a huge bomb — six 55-gallon drums, diesel fuel and a large box of screws — in a large white van parked near the tree lighting.
But the bomb was a fake built by the FBI, and the packed crowds who enjoyed a youth choir and a symphony orchestra at Friday’s holiday celebration at Pioneer Courthouse Square were never in danger, authorities said.
Mohamud appears to have joined a growing list of amateurs who have shown more fervor than smarts in their apparent plots against America. His alleged operation unfolded under the careful supervision, and with the direct assistance, of undercover FBI agents.
Aided by good luck and good intelligence, U.S. authorities have disrupted or uncovered at least 15 homegrown terrorist conspiracies over the last two years, often by penetrating the scheme at an early stage and carefully orchestrating the results.
Two domestic attacks have produced casualties — the shooting deaths of 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas, and the slaying of an Army recruiter in Little Rock, Ark., both last year. Another plot, involving a failed car bomb in New York’s Times Square in May, was traced to a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen, who was arrested and pleaded guilty.
The alleged plot in Portland also would have carried the potential for mass slaughter.
According to the affidavit:
The FBI began tracking Mohamud in August 2009 when they discovered he was e-mailing a former Oregon student who was living in Pakistan’s lawless northwest region, where Al Qaeda has a stronghold. The Associated Press reported that the bureau was led to Mohamud by a tip from someone concerned about him.
By December, Mohamud was trying to visit the area. His friend, who was not named in court documents, urged him to contact an associate named Abdulhadi to arrange the trip. But Mohamud repeatedly mixed up the Hotmail address with the password, and the e-mails bounced back.
Apparently frustrated, Mohamud tried to fly to Kodiak, Alaska, on June 10. He already was on a no-fly list, however, and was stopped from boarding at Portland International Airport. He told the FBI that he had hoped to go to Yemen, but couldn’t obtain a visa or ticket, so had gotten a summer fishing job in Alaska instead.
Two weeks later, an FBI undercover agent contacted Mohamud and pretended to be Abdulhadi, providing an e-mail address that the FBI controlled. Mohamud and the agent met for the first time on July 30 in downtown Portland.
Mohamud boasted that he had written in support of violent jihad for an online, English-language propaganda magazine called Jihad Recollections, using the pen name Ibnul Mubarak.
The FBI later recovered the three articles, including one titled “Getting in shape without weights.” It seeks to introduce Pilates training to those preparing “physically for jihad.”
Mohamud also submitted an article to Inspire, an extremist magazine published by the media arm of the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. Samir Khan, a Pakistani-American, allegedly ran Jihad Recollections from his parents’ home in Charlotte, N.C. He moved to Yemen last year and now is believed to edit Inspire.
Mohamud told “Abdulhadi” that he “initially wanted to wage war in the U.S.” The FBI agent told Mohamud he could not tell him what to do, but suggested several options, including going “operational” or becoming a shaheed, or martyr. Mohamud said he wanted to build a car bomb, but would need help.
At Oregon State, about 80 miles south of Portland, Mohamud had a benign profile. “He wasn’t the most social person, but he wasn’t anti-social,” said Omar Mohamed, president of the Muslim Student Assn. “He seemed like a pretty normal guy.”
Mohamud also was not known for being particularly pious. “From what I understand, he wasn’t the most religious person,” Mohamed said. “He didn’t regularly go to mosque.”
And unlike some Muslim students, he was known to attend college parties where alcohol was served, though it was unclear whether Mohamud actually drank.
On Aug. 19, Mohamud and “Abdulhadi” met again — in a bugged hotel room — and “Abdulhadi” brought another undercover FBI agent, who claimed to be an expert in explosives. Mohamud told them that he had begun thinking of jihad when he was 15.
The FBI affidavit then goes on to say how he described his plan to bomb the Nov. 26 event.
“They have a Christmas lighting and some 25,000 people that come,” he said. They should “be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays,” he added, quoting Osama bin Laden.
He said he had scouted where Black Friday shoppers streaming from nearby stores would likely gather in the busy outdoor square. The tree lighting was scheduled for 5:30 p.m., “so I was thinking that would be the perfect time.”
The trio met again Sept. 7. This time, the undercover agents asked Mohamud to buy the bomb components. They gave him $2,700 in cash to rent an apartment where they could all hide, and $110 to cover the cost of the bomb parts.
Over the next few weeks, the affidavit says, Mohamud mailed them a Utiliteck programmable timer, two Nokia cellphones, stereo phone jacks, a toggle switch and other gear, mostly from Radio Shack. One package also had a pack of gum and a scrawled note: “Good Luck with ur stereo system Sweetie. Enjoy the Gum.”
They held more meetings in early October in Corvallis, and Mohamud gave them a computer thumb drive with Google street-view photographs of his preferred parking spot, the attack site and escape routes. And he enthused again about his plan.
“It’s going to be a fireworks show… a spectacular show… New York Times will give it two thumbs up.”
According to the university, Mohamud stopped attending the school that month.
On Nov. 4, Mohamud and the two agents drove to a remote location near the coast west of Corvallis, supposedly to test the homemade bomb design. In reality, federal agents remotely detonated a device.
On the way home, he recalled the Sept. 11 attacks. “Do you remember when 9/11 happened, when those people were jumping from skyscrapers? … I thought that was awesome.” He said he hoped people attending the tree lighting would “leave either dead or injured.”
That afternoon, the undercover agents helped Mohamud record a video statement. Explaining that he wanted to dress “Sheik Osama style,” he donned a white robe and camouflage jacket. He then read a lengthy testimonial to jihad on camera. According to an FBI transcript of the statement, Mohamud, who was born in Mogadishu, briefly mentions his parents and suggests they had tried to steer him on another path in life. Arabic phrases are set off in brackets:
“To my parents, who held me back from jihad in the cause of Allah. I say to them [by Allah] if you — if you make allies with the enemy, then Allah’s power [the glorified and exalted] will ask you about that on the day of judgment, and nothing you can do can hold me back.”
In a follow-up meeting, their seventh, he gave the FBI agents hard hats, safety glasses, and reflective vests and gloves. He said they would wear the gear before the attack as a disguise, and put traffic markers around the parked van.
Abdulhadi, the first FBI agent, picked up Mohamud at about noon Friday, and they went to inspect the bomb. Built by FBI technicians, it appeared impressive. But the explosives, the detonation cord and the blasting caps all were inert.
“Beautiful,” Mohamud said.
At 4:45 p.m., they drove the van to Yamhill and Sixth Street and parked. Police had secretly kept the space open. Mohamud attached the blasting cap and flipped the toggle switch to arm the bomb, then put on his hard hat.
They walked several blocks, got in another car and drove to a pre-selected parking lot. Mohamud quickly dialed the number to detonate the bomb. When they didn’t hear anything, he got out of the car to look for a better signal, and FBI agents swarmed in for the arrest.
An Oregon State student directory listed an apartment address for Mohamud in the Portland suburb of Beaverton. A woman who answered the apartment door declined to speak with a reporter. Hanging to the right of the door was a heart-shaped sign with the words “Bless this home.”
When Mohamud attended Oregon State, he was not a member of the Muslim Student Assn. and rarely attended events held by the group. But Mohamed, the association president, recalls that Mohamud had recently attended “Night of the Crescent: Understanding Muslims,” a program aimed at showing that “Muslims in general are not scary people. They are neighbors, your best friends. We’re not all scary men with beards.”
That was Nov. 17. The next day, Mohamud met with the undercover agents to continue planning the attack.
Choi, who reported from Corvallis, is a special correspondent.