PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A Somali-born teenager 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 in downtown Portland after using a cell phone 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, and authorities said the public was never in danger.
The case is the latest in a string of alleged terrorist planning by U.S. citizens or residents, including a Times Square plot in which a Pakistan-born man pleaded guilty earlier this year to trying to set off a car bomb at a busy street corner.
In the Portland plot, Mohamud believed he was receiving help from a larger ring of jihadists as he communicated with undercover agents, but a law enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on a condition of anonymity told The Associated Press that no foreign terrorist organization was directing him.
The official said Mohamud planned the details, 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.
Thousands of people gathered Friday on a cold, clear night for the annual event at Pioneer Courthouse Square, a plaza known as “Portland’s living room.”
Just 10 minutes before Mohamud’s 5:40 p.m. arrest, babies were sitting on shoulders, and children cheered at the first appearance of Santa Claus onstage. The tree-lighting went off without a hitch.
Mohamud graduated from high school in Beaverton. He was enrolled at Oregon State University over the past year but withdrawing Oct. 6, the school said.
Mohamud was known at the Salman Al-Farisi Center in Corvallis, said Yosof Wanly, imam at the mosque. He said Mohamud was “an average university boy,” drinking the occasional beer with friends in fraternities.
“He had some fraternity friends,” Wanly said. “He would attend athletic (events), basketball games, whatever they are.”
The law enforcement official who spoke to the AP said agents began investigating Mohamud after receiving a tip from someone concerned about him. The official declined providing further more detail about the relationship between the two.
The FBI monitored Mohamud’s e-mail and found he was in contact with people overseas, asking how he could travel to Pakistan and join the fight for jihad, according to an FBI affidavit.
The law enforcement official said Mohamud e-mailed a friend living in Pakistan who had been a student in Oregon in 2007-2008 and been in Yemen as well.
The e-mail exchanges led the FBI to believe that Mohamud’s friend in Pakistan “had joined others involved in terrorist activities” and was inviting Mohamud to join him, according to the affidavit.
For reasons unexplained, Mohamud tried to board a flight to Kodiak, Alaska, from Portland on June 14, wasn’t allowed to board and was interviewed by the FBI, the affidavit states.
Mohamud told the FBI he wanted to earn money fishing and then travel to join “the brothers.” He said he had previously hoped to travel to Yemen but had never obtained a ticket or a visa.
On June 23, an agent e-mailed Mohamud, pretending to be affiliated with the “unindicted associate.”
The FBI’s affidavit said the friend in Pakistan referred him to another associate, but gave him an address Mohamud repeatedly tried e-mailing unsuccessfully. The official said FBI agents saw that as an opportunity and e-mailed in response, claiming to be associates of Mohamud’s friend, the former student.
The affidavit said Mohamud was warned several times about the seriousness of his plan, that women and children could die, 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.”
Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen, 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.
Authorities allowed the plot to proceed to build up enough evidence to charge the suspect with attempt.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Saturday that President Barack Obama was aware of the FBI operation before Friday’s arrest. Shapiro said Obama was assured that the FBI was in full control of the operation, and the public was not in danger.
Authorities said Mohamud sent bomb components to undercover FBI agents he believed were assembling the explosive device, but the agents supplied the fake bomb that Mohamud tried to detonate twice via his phone.
The FBI affidavit said the undercover agent first met Mohamud in person on July 30 and asked what he would do for the cause of jihad, suggesting he might want to spread Islam to others, continue studies to help the cause overseas, raise money, become “operational” or become a martyr. Mohamud responded that he wanted to become “operational” but needed training, the affidavit said.
When Mohamud was asked what he meant by “operational,” he 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.
At a second meeting on Aug. 19 at a Portland hotel, the agent brought another undercover agent, the documents said, and Mohamud told them he had selected Pioneer Courthouse Square for the bombing.
On Nov. 4, the court documents say, Mohamud made a video in the presence of one of the undercover agents, putting on clothes he described as “Sheik Osama style:” a white robe, red and white headdress, and camouflage jacket.
He read a statement speaking of his dream of bringing “a dark day” on Americans and blaming his family for thwarting him, according to the court documents:
“To my parents who held me back from Jihad in the cause of Allah. I say to them … if you — if you make allies with the enemy, then Allah’s power … will ask you about that on the day of judgment, and nothing that you do can hold me back …”
Friday, an agent and Mohamud drove to Portland in a white van that carried six 55-gallon drums with detonation cords and plastic caps, but all of them were inert, the complaint states.
They left the van near the downtown ceremony site and went to a train station where Mohamud was given a cell phone that he thought would blow up the vehicle, according to the complaint. There was no detonation when he dialed, and when he tried again federal agents and police made their move.
Two Oregon Muslim leaders held a Saturday evening news conference on the front steps of Portland City Hall to condemn the alleged bomb plot.
Imam Mikal Shabazz, president of the Oregon Islamic Chaplains Organization, and Shahriar Ahmed, president of the Bilal Mosque Association in Beaverton, said they were shocked by the plot but relieved there was never any danger to the public.
“We want to make sure that we go on record, and not just on record, but that our conviction is expressed, that we in no way, shape or form support this, no matter what the justification may be,” Shabazz said.
Ahmed added that it was very personal for him because his daughter, home from college for the holiday, had gone shopping downtown at Pioneer Courthouse Square on Friday.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have resettled in the United States since their country plunged into lawlessness in 1991, and the U.S. has boosted aid to the country.
In August, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment naming 14 people accused of being a deadly pipeline routing money and fighters from the U.S. to al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliated group in Mohamud’s native Somalia.
FBI agent E.K. Wilson said there is no apparent connection between the bomb plot in Portland and the investigation into about 20 men who left Minneapolis to join al-Shabab in Somalia.
Officials have been working with Muslim leaders across the United States, particularly with the Somali community in Minnesota, trying to combat the radicalization.
On Saturday, Omar Jamal, first secretary to the Somali mission to the United Nations and an advocate for Somalis in Minnesota, said Mohamud has a stepmother in Minneapolis. He condemned the plot and urged Somalis to cooperate with police and the FBI.
Jamal said he had spoken to two Somalis who knew Mohamud, and he was described as religious and quiet. Jamal said Mohamud is from southern Somalia.
“Everybody’s afraid, really really afraid,” Jamal said of members of Oregon’s Somali communities and elsewhere. “They’re afraid of, first of all, the label. The allegation is very serious …”
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nigel Duara and William McCall in Portland, Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee, Amy Forliti in Minneapolis and Darlene Superville and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.