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Teen held in alleged Portland bomb plot

FBI agents say Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia, planned to detonate explosives during a tree lighting downtown. But he'd been working all along with undercover agents, an affidavit says.

November 28, 2010|By Bob Drogin and April Choi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington and Corvallis, Ore. — 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."

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