For the first time since he saw the person he believed was his bomb-building accomplice dragged away in handcuffs screaming "God is great," an Oregon terrorism suspect came face to face Wednesday with the man he only knew as Hussein.
For the first time since he saw the person he believed was his bomb-building accomplice dragged away in handcuffs screaming “God is great,” an Oregon terrorism suspect came face to face Wednesday with the man he only knew as Hussein.
This time, suspect Mohamed Mohamud sat behind a defense table, and, in the witness box across a federal courtroom, “Hussein” testified that he witnessed Mohamud’s descent into radicalism.
“Hussein” was the invented cover name for an FBI agent who went from suburban beat cop to one of the lead players in an undercover sting operation against Mohamud, who’s now 21 years old. Other details of the agent’s life were kept out of testimony to protect his identity, and media and the general public were only permitted to listen to his testimony via closed-circuit television.
Mohamud is accused of attempting to detonate a bomb at a Portland Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in November 2010. The bomb was a fake supplied by “Hussein” who, while Mohamud was genuinely being detained, pretended to be arrested as the final act in a months-long acting job.
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The testimony Wednesday included video and audio recordings of Mohamud discussing the slaughter of thousands of people in eerily mundane language, quoting Osama bin Laden and reveling in the 9/11 attacks.
“People jumping from the skyscrapers, I thought that was awesome,” Mohamud said in one of the recordings.
His defense team has argued he was entrapped, the victim of an elaborate hoax that led an angry but powerless young Muslim man down a path of radicalization that culminated in a plot wholly invented by the FBI, a plot Mohamud was incapable of carrying out without lots of help.
Despite the elaborate security measures intended to protect the undercover agents, on two occasions Wednesday, both men’s faces were accidentally shown to the media and public when surveillance footage failed to blur their faces. The errors lasted about five to 10 seconds each.
“Hussein” is a heavyset, broad-shouldered man, shown with a beard wearing casual Western clothes. The other agent, identified only as “Youssef,” is thin, with a narrow face and prominent forehead whose black hair was graying. He wore a suit jacket in the footage, part of his false identity as a politically connected al-Qaida recruiter living in the U.S.
Speaking in slow, deliberate, accented English, “Hussein” testified Wednesday that Mohamud rejected every opportunity to back out of the plan that he allegedly conceived: Parking a car near Portland’s downtown square and remotely detonating a bomb inside.
The agent said he gave Mohamud several assignments in advance of the purported tree-lighting bombing. Mohamud was told to buy toggle switches, cell phones and kitchen timers.
“I wanted him to purchase it and feel it and touch it,” the agent testified. “Experience the realism.”
The prosecution also played an audio recording of the detonation of a bomb in rural Lincoln County intended to convince Mohamud that the agents were truly al-Qaida operatives preparing for a terrorist plot. Several seconds of talking is interrupted by a loud boom, and Mohamud sounded as if he came away impressed, asking later how much bigger the Portland tree-lighting bomb would be.
Earlier Wednesday, a defense attorney used her cross-examination of “Youssef” to raise the idea that Mohamud was a naive, inexperienced teenager manipulated into taking part in a phony plot to detonate a bomb.
Defense attorney Lisa Hay pressed the agent, who acknowledged that Mohamud had trouble with relatively simple tasks, such as renting a storage shed and buying items to be used in the making of the bomb.
Hay said during her questioning that Mohamud “didn’t have much money until you came into his life,” and that the older undercover agents provided financial and emotional support – and food – at a time when Mohamud’s parents were separated and a close friend had gone to Afghanistan.
“Youssef” testified that Mohamud shed tears during their initial meeting, something the agent attributed to the teen’s loneliness because of his friend’s departure.
When the agent met Mohamud, the young man was living with his mother. Hay played wiretapped recordings in which the agent, in the attorney’s view, spoke to him like a child.
“No offense, but to us you’re a kid,” the agent said on one recording.
The agents eventually wanted Mohamud to get his own apartment because it would make the sting operation easier to facilitate. They gave him almost $3,000 to rent a place and buy bomb-making materials.
Mohamud wrote in a September 2010 email that he had never rented an apartment before and asked if they or a “brother” might co-sign.
“Kind of a clueless idea to think al-Qaida would co-sign,” Hay said. “Don’t you agree?”
The attorney also played recordings in which the agents asked Mohamud to rent a large storage shed in which to build the bomb.
“Youssef” testified that the FBI assigned such tasks to test the Mohamud’s resolve. In this test, however, Mohamud initially didn’t understand what type of storage unit the agents wanted, and then took a month to follow through. The agent acknowledged that he and another agent had to prod Mohamud, eventually giving him the name of a storage company and driving by.
“Not much of a test if you’re pointing out the right one,” Hay said.
Under re-direct questioning by prosecutor Ethan Knight, the agent said the FBI did not have to manipulate Mohamud to get him to participate in a plot to potentially kill thousands of people.
“He knew what he wanted to do, and it was to kill Americans,” Youssef said, adding that this was, “before I met him.”
Reach reporter Nigel Duara on Facebook at http://bit.ly/RSmBei.