A Somali-born man plotted "a spectacular show" of terrorism for months, saying he didn't mind that children would die if he bombed a crowded Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, according to a law-enforcement official and court documents.
PORTLAND — A Somali-born man plotted “a spectacular show” of terrorism for months, saying he didn’t mind that children would die if he bombed a crowded Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, according to a law-enforcement official and court documents.
He never got the chance. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, was arrested Friday night in downtown Portland at the ceremony after using a cellphone to try to detonate what he thought were explosives in a van, prosecutors said. It turned out to be a dummy bomb put together by FBI agents.
“The threat was very real. … Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale,” said Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon. Balizan added that agents carefully “denied him the ability to actually carry out the attack.”
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Federal officials said the arrest, the latest in a string of terrorism cases involving U.S. citizens or residents, dramatized the growing threat of homegrown extremists who have become radicalized, often in part by exposure to extremist websites. The pattern has undercut the conventional wisdom that American Muslims were less susceptible to extremism.
In Portland, the van containing the fake explosives was parked off Pioneer Courthouse Square near where an estimated 10,000 people had gathered for the tree lighting, police said.
Balizan said Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen, graduated from Westview High School in Beaverton, a Portland suburb, and had been a sophomore engineering student at Oregon State University in Corvallis until October.
Mohamud believed he was receiving help from a larger ring of jihadists as he communicated with undercover agents, but a law-enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity said no foreign terrorist organization was directing him.
The official said Mohamud was committed to the plot and planned details alone, including where to park the van to hurt the most people.
“I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave dead or injured,” Mohamud said, according to the affidavit.
The affidavit said Mohamud was warned several times by undercover agents about the seriousness of his plan, that women and children could be killed, and that he could back out. But he told agents: “Since I was 15 I thought about all this,” and “it’s gonna be a fireworks show … a spectacular show.”
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Saturday that President Obama was aware of the operation before Friday’s arrest. Shapiro said Obama was assured the public was never in danger.
The foiled terrorism plot had many elements that have become familiar in recent years: a naturalized U.S. citizen who had become radicalized and had contacted an unidentified figure with connections to Yemen and northwest Pakistan, both homes to militant groups.
In May, a Pakistani-born American was arrested, and later pleaded guilty, for plotting a car-bomb attack in New York’s Times Square.
But unlike that plan, which authorities learned about only at the last minute, the affidavit filed in the Oregon case indicates the FBI learned early on of Mohamud’s desire to plot violence. His planning unfolded under the scrutiny of the undercover agents, officials said.
In a similar case in September 2009, a 19-year-old Jordanian was arrested after placing a fake bomb at a 60-story Dallas skyscraper. The same month, a 29-year-old Muslim convert was charged with placing a bomb at the federal building in Springfield, Ill. And in October, a 34-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan was arrested and charged with plotting to bomb the Washington, D.C., subway after telling undercover agents of his plans and surveillance activities.
In the Oregon case, the FBI received a tip from a Portland Muslim who was concerned about Mohamud’s increasing radicalism, according to the federal official.
That tip led the FBI to monitor his e-mail activity. The agency found that he was in contact with people overseas, asking how he could travel to Pakistan and join the fight for jihad, according to the affidavit.
The law-enforcement official said Mohamud e-mailed a friend living in northwest Pakistan who had been a student in Oregon in 2007-08 and who also had been in Yemen.
The authorities arrested Mohamud about 5:40 p.m. Friday, 20 minutes before the tree-lighting ceremony was planned to start. As he was taken into custody, he kicked and screamed at the agents and yelled: “Allahu akbar,” an Arabic phrase for “God is great,” the authorities said.
He was charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. A court appearance was set for Monday.
Defense attorneys in such cases often accuse the FBI of entrapment. Anticipating such claims, undercover agents offered Mohamud several nonfatal ways to serve his cause. The affidavit said an undercover agent first met Mohamud in person July 30 and asked what he would do for the cause of jihad. The agent suggested Mohamud might want to spread Islam to others, continue his studies to help the cause overseas, raise money, become “operational” or become a martyr. Mohamud said he wanted to become “operational” but needed training, the affidavit said.
Asked what he meant by “operational,” Mohamud responded that he wanted to put together an explosion, the affidavit said. The undercover agent said he could introduce him to an explosives expert and asked Mohamud to research potential targets.
In August, Mohamud described the target: Portland’s Christmas tree lighting downtown.
Federal agents said Mohamud thought Portland would be a good target because Americans “don’t see it as a place where anything will happen.”
“It’s in Oregon, and Oregon, like you know, nobody ever thinks about it,” the affidavit quotes him as saying.
Given the option to be in the van with the bomb, or detonate it remotely and then leave the country, Mohamud chose the latter because martyrdom, he was quoted as saying, required “the highest level of faith,” which he didn’t have.
For several weeks the FBI let the scenario play out to build evidence. In September, Mohamud mailed bomb components to the undercover agents.
On Nov. 4, the court documents say, Mohamud made a video full of apocalyptic phrases in the presence of one undercover agent. “Explode on these infidels,” he said, in mixed English and Arabic.
There was no evidence that Mohamud had any current link to or was a sympathizer of al-Shabab, a militant Islamic group in Somalia, officials said.
Muslim and Arab-American leaders in Oregon and southwest Washington condemned the attack Saturday, calling it “without any justification in Islam or authentic Muslim tradition.”