Feds: Sting snares man planning to bomb tree-lighting ceremony

Feds: Sting snares man planning to bomb tree-lighting ceremony
Official statements from Sam Adams, the Department of Justice and Oregon state Senator Jeff Merkley are below the story's text.

UPDATE: Members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice met with reporters on this matter at 12:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland.

Meanwhile, an Oregon State University spokesperson says Mohamud was “a non-degree seeking student in pre-engineering” who attended classes at OSU in the fall quarter of 2009 and again in the fall quarter of 2010. He stopped taking classes there on Oct. 6, 2010. Mohamud also attended Westview High School in Beaverton.



PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Federal agents in a sting operation arrested a Somali-born teenager just as he tried blowing up a van he believed was loaded with explosives at a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, authorities said.

The bomb was an elaborate fake supplied by the agents and the public was never in danger, authorities said.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, was arrested at 5:40 p.m. Friday just after he dialed a cell phone that he thought would set off the blast but instead brought federal agents and police swooping down on him.

Yelling "Allahu Akbar!" – Arabic for "God is great!" – Mohamud tried to kick agents and police after he was taken into custody, according to prosecutors.

"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."

More details: Read the arrest affidavit (PDF)

A law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press on Saturday that federal agents began investigating the suspect after receiving a tip from someone who was concerned about the teenager.

The FBI affidavit that outlined the investigation alleges that Mohamud planned the attack for months, at one point mailing bomb components to FBI operatives, whom he believed were assembling the device.

According to the official, Mohamud hatched the plan on his own and without any instruction from a foreign terrorist organization, and he planned the details, including where to park the van for the maximum number of casualties.

The affidavit said Mohamud was warned several times 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."

Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Corvallis, 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. Few details were available about him late Friday.

Authorities allowed the plot to proceed in order to build up enough evidence to charge the suspect with attempt.

Officials didn't say if the suspect had any ties to other Americans recently accused of trying to carry out attacks on U.S. soil, including alleged efforts in May by a Pakistan-born man to set off a car bomb near Times Square or another Pakistan-born Virginia resident accused last month in a bomb plot to kill commuters.

U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton released federal court documents to The Associated Press and the Oregonian newspaper that show the sting operation began in June after an undercover agent learned that Mohamud had been in regular e-mail contact with an "unindicted associate" in Pakistan's northwest, a frontier region where al-Qaida and Afghanistan's Taliban insurgents are strong.

The two used coded language in which the FBI believes Mohamud discussed traveling to Pakistan to prepare for "violent jihad," the documents said.

In June an FBI agent contacted Mohamud "under the guise of being affiliated with" the suspected terrorist. But the documents did not say how federal officials first became aware of Mohamud.

An undercover agent met with him a month later in Portland, where they "discussed violent jihad," according to the court documents.

As a trial run, Mohamud and agents detonated a bomb in Oregon's backcountry earlier this month.

"This defendant's chilling determination is a stark reminder that there are people - even here in Oregon - who are determined to kill Americans," Holton said.

Friday, an agent and Mohamud drove to downtown 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.

Omar Jamal, first secretary to the Somali mission to the United Nations, condemned the plot and urged Somalis to cooperate with police and the FBI.

"Talk to them and tell them what you know so we can all be safe," Jamal said.

Somalia Foreign Minister Mohamed Abullahi Omaar said his government is "ready and willing" to offer the U.S. any assistance it may need to prevent similar attempts. He said the attempt in Portland was a tragedy for Mohamud's family and the "people he tried to harm."

"Mohamud's attempt is neither representative nor an example of Somalis. Somalis are peace loving people," said Omaar, whose government is holed up in a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu, while much of the country's southern and central regions are ruled by Islamist insurgents.

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,

At the time, Attorney General Eric Holder said the indictments reflect a disturbing trend of recruitment efforts targeting U.S. residents to become terrorists.

Officials have been working with Muslim community leaders across the United States, particularly in Somali diasporas in Minnesota, trying to combat the radicalization.

U.S. counter-terror officials have been warning for more than a year and a half about the escalating threat from al-Shabab, which they say has been recruiting young Somali-Americans, luring them home to fight and train.

Because they often carry U.S. passports, officials worry that they may be returning to the U.S. to form sleeper cells and carry out terror attacks.

If Mohamud is found to have ties to al-Shabab, including travel to Somalia or training in camps there, it would be the realization of the long-held fear that the group can successfully coordinate and inspire attacks on U.S. soil.

The alleged plot in Portland follows a string of terrorist attack planning by U.S. citizens or residents.

In the Times Square plot, Faisal Shahzad allegedly tried to set off a car bomb at a bustling street corner. U.S. authorities had no intelligence about Shahzad's plot until the smoking car turned up in Manhattan.

Late last month, Farooque Ahmed, 34, of Virginia was arrested and accused of casing Washington-area subway stations in what he thought was an al-Qaida plot to bomb and kill commuters. Similar to the Portland sting, the bombing plot was a ruse conducted over the past six months by federal officials.

A year ago in another federal sting, 19-year-old Jordanian Hosam Smadi was arrested on charges he intended to bomb a downtown Dallas skyscraper. Federal officials said he placed what he believed was a car bomb outside the building but was instead a decoy device given him by an undercover FBI agent.

"I think we've been extremely lucky so far in the United States that many of the incidents have been amateur," said Bruce Hoffman, terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "But even if their skill level is not enough that they can pull off a successful attack, what is clear that the intention or motivation to cause mass homicide or destruction is certainly genuine."

Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya, and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington also contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

____________________

Statement from Mayor Adams:

Early this evening, Friday November 26, 2010, the FBI and the Portland Police Bureau arrested 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia and a resident of Corvallis, Ore., in connection with a plot to detonate a vehicle bomb at the Portland Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Pioneer Square in Downtown Portland. The Christmas tree lighting ceremony annually draws thousands of people into Pioneer Square.

Mohamud was arrested after he attempted to remotely detonate what he believed to be explosives in a van that was parked near the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. The device was in fact inert and the public was never at risk.

Chief Michael Reese stated, “This threat was very real but at no point was the public ever in danger. The cooperation of various law enforcement agencies was critical in making this case. I appreciate the partnership we have with the FBI and I’m very proud of the Portland Police Bureau’s role in this investigation. The Portland Police Bureau works to maintain the highest level of safety for our community and this case stands as an example of our commitment to the people we serve.”

Mayor Sam Adams said, “A smart federal, state and local law enforcement investigation caught a criminal tonight bent on mass destruction and murder in our city.” “The bomb was a fake but evidence shows the criminal who tried to detonate it was real. My deepest thanks to the local teams at the United States Department of Justice, FBI, Portland Police Bureau, and other local agencies who were instrumental in protecting our community.”

This case was investigated by the FBI, with assistance from the Oregon State Police, the Corvallis Police Department, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, and the Portland Police Bureau.

Mohamud was booked into the Multnomah County Jail and is expected to make his initial appearance in federal court in Portland on Monday. He faces a maximum statutory sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of the charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

___________________________

Department of Justice official release:

OREGON RESIDENT ARRESTED IN PLOT TO BOMB CHRISTMAS TREE LIGHTING CEREMONY IN PORTLAND

PORTLAND, Ore. – Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia and resident of Corvallis, Ore., has been arrested on charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction (explosives) in connection with a plot to detonate a vehicle bomb at an annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony earlier this evening in Portland, Ore., the Justice Department announced.

According to a criminal complaint signed in the District of Oregon, Mohamud was arrested by the FBI and Portland Police Bureau at approximately 5:40 p.m. (PST) Nov. 26, 2010 after he attempted to detonate what he believed to be an explosives-laden van that was parked near the tree lighting ceremony in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square.

The arrest was the culmination of a long-term undercover operation, during which Mohamud had been monitored closely for months as his alleged bomb plot developed. The device was in fact inert; and the public was never in danger from the device.

Mohamud is expected to make his initial appearance in federal court in Portland on Monday. He faces a maximum statutory sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of the charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

Dwight C. Holton, U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, said, “This defendant’s chilling determination is a stark reminder that there are people -- even here in Oregon -- who are determined to kill Americans. The good work of law enforcement protected Oregonians in this case -- and we have no reason to believe there is any continuing threat arising from this case.”

“The complaint alleges that Mohamud attempted to detonate what he believed to be a vehicle bomb at a crowded holiday event in downtown Portland, but a coordinated undercover law enforcement action was able to thwart his efforts and ensure no one was harmed,” said David Kris, Assistant Attorney General for National Security. “While the public was never in danger from the device, this case serves as yet another reminder of the need for continued vigilance both at home and abroad.”

1
“The threat was very real. Our investigation shows that 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. “At the same time, I want to reassure the people of this community that, at every turn, we denied him the ability to actually carry out the attack.”

According to the affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, in August 2009, Mohamud was in email contact with an unindicted associate (UA1) overseas who is believed to be involved in terrorist activities. In December 2009, while UA1 was located in the northwest frontier province of Pakistan, Mohamud and UA1 discussed the possibility of Mohamud traveling to Pakistan to engage in violent jihad. UAI allegedly referred Mohamud to a second unindicted associate (UA2) overseas and provided Mohamud with a name and email address to facilitate the process.

In the months that followed, Mohamud allegedly made several unsuccessful attempts to contact UA2. Ultimately, an FBI undercover operative contacted Mohamud via email in June 2010 under the guise of being an associate of UA1.

Mohamud and the FBI undercover operative then agreed to meet in Portland in July 2010. At this meeting, Mohamud allegedly told the FBI undercover operative that he had written articles that were published in Jihad Recollections, an online magazine that advocated violent jihad. Mohamud also indicated that he wanted to become “operational.” Asked what he meant by “operational,” Mohamud stated that he wanted to put an “explosion” together, but needed help.

At a second meeting in August 2010, Mohamud allegedly told undercover FBI operatives he had been thinking of committing violent jihad since the age of 15.

According to the affidavit, Mohamud then told the undercover FBI operatives that he had identified a potential target for a bomb: the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square on Nov. 26, 2010.

According to the affidavit, the undercover FBI operatives cautioned Mohamud several times about the seriousness of this plan, noting there would be many people at the event, including many children, and emphasized that Mohamud could abandon his attack plans at any time with no shame. “You know there’s gonna be a lot of children there?” an undercover FBI operative asked Mohamud. According to the affidavit, Mohamud responded that he was looking for a “huge mass that will . . . be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays.” Further discussing the attack, Mohamud allegedly stated, “...it’s in Oregon; and Oregon like you know, nobody ever thinks about it.”

The affidavit alleges that in subsequent months, Mohamud continued to express his interest in carrying out the attack and worked on logistics. He allegedly identified a location to place the bomb and mailed bomb components to the undercover FBI operatives, who he believed were assembling the device.

He also mailed them passport photos, as part of a plan to help him sneak out of the country after the attack. In addition, Mohamud provided the undercover FBI operatives with a thumb drive that contained detailed directions to the bomb location and operational instructions for the attack.

2
According to the affidavit, on November 4, 2010, Mohamud and the undercover FBI operatives traveled to a remote location in Lincoln County, Ore., where they detonated a bomb concealed in a backpack as a trial run for the upcoming attack.

Afterward, on the drive back to Corvallis, undercover FBI operatives questioned Mohamud as to whether he was capable of looking at the bodies of those who would be killed in the upcoming attack in Portland. According to the affidavit, Mohamud responded, “I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured.”

Upon returning to Corvallis that same day, the affidavit alleges that Mohamud recorded a video of himself with the undercover FBI operatives in which he read a written statement that offered a rationale for his bomb attack. On Nov. 18, 2010, undercover FBI operatives picked up Mohamud to travel to Portland in order to finalize the details of the attack.

Earlier this evening, Mohamud was arrested after he attempted to remotely detonate what he believed to be explosives in a van that was parked near the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, the affidavit alleges.

This case was investigated by the FBI, with assistance from the Oregon State Police, the Corvallis Police Department, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and the Portland Police Bureau. The prosecution is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ethan D. Knight and Jeffrey Sweet from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon. Trial Attorneys Jolie F. Zimmerman and David Cora, from the Counter-terrorism Section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, are assisting.

The charges and allegations contained in the criminal complaint are merely allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

UPDATE: Oregon's Senator Jeff Merkley, who in 2007 was elected the speaker for Oregon’s House of Representatives, issued the following statement Saturday afternoon on the thwarted attempt to bomb Pioneer Courthouse Square:

"This is a grim reminder to all of us that there remain individuals and groups that want to inflict terror upon our communities. We must remain vigilant in our efforts to stop them. The men and women on the front lines of this fight deserve our respect and thanks for their tremendous work."