PORTLAND, Ore. - A 19-year-old Somali-American man pleaded not guilty Monday to an alleged plot to blow up a car bomb at a Portland Christmas tree lighting ceremony, and his attorneys questioned whether the government encouraged his behavior.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud entered the plea in federal court in Portland.
An indictment filed earlier in the day charged him with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Mohamud was arrested Friday evening near the crowded Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland, amid an FBI sting operation that followed months of investigation. Authorities said Mohamud tried blowing up a van he believed was loaded with explosives. The bomb was an elaborate fake supplied by the agents and the public was never in danger, according to authorities.
A judge set a tentative trial date for Feb. 1.
Over 100 people tried to cram into the courtroom but only seven members of Mohamud’s family, including his mother, were allowed in, and the media was allowed in by lottery.
When Mohamud entered the courtroom in a button-down shirt he smiled at his lawyers and shook their hands. He made no attempt to look or communicate with his family sitting behind him.
The mood was somber, and the only words he spoke was “Yes, your honor,” when the judge asked him if he understood his rights.
But his defense team had a lot to say, questioning the government’s actions whether the FBI encouraged his behavior and that entrapment is a real issue in the case.
“One of the issues that will be coming up in this case involves whether and how he was directed in those actions by the government agents,” said Steve Wax, a federal public defender outside court. “One of the issues we’ll be looking into in this case is the question of entrapment.”
Mohamud’s defense team noted the FBI gave him money, provided him transportation and ideas about how to carry out the plot to blow up a bomb at the packed tree-lighting ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Mohamud's lawyers told the judge they planned to argue for suppressing some of the evidence against their client. They also questioned why government recording devices were not working during the very first meeting between agents and Mohamud. They said it's more evidence of entrapment by "sophisticated government agents" who helped Mohamud devise the fake bomb.
A defense of entrapment must prove that the government planted the idea of a criminal act in an innocent person's mind and brought about the crime so the government could prosecute it.
His defense team also blasted the FBI and U.S. attorney, saying "The arrest was obviously timed for maximum publicity and impact."
Wax, along with Chief Deputy Public Defender Stephen Sady, who is also representing Mohamud, have also represented detainees at Guantanamo Bay and a local lawyer, Brandon Mayfield, who was falsely accused in the train bombing in Madrid, Spain.
Friends and Family Show Support
Some of Mohamud’s friends, who went to Mosque with him at the Islamic Learning Center in Southwest Portland and knew him as a classmate at Jackson Middle School, said Mohamud was framed.
They described him as a typical college kid who loved basketball, soccer and rap music and not as the hell-bent jihadist as he is being described by authorities.
"He doesn't even have a driver's license. He couldn't even drive,” said Saba Ahmed, a friend of Mohamud’s. “The FBI drove him around the state, and that's not fair to a 19-year-old. He had his whole life ahead of him.
“Everyone is innocent until proven guilty,” Ahmed said. “The guy has been framed really badly by the FBI and the Justice Department, and I am really shocked. This is really irresponsible behavior because now the Muslim community is the one suffering the consequences of their actions.”
"I think maybe they kept talking to him and kind of changed his mind-set and got him to do it - by the way they talked to him,” said Mujahid El-Naser, another friend of Mohamud. “If you talk to someone enough they will become convinced that they need to do something, and I think that's what they might have done with him."
No one answered at Mohamud’s mother’s apartment in Beaverton on Monday. There was only a sign that read: “No soliciting” and “No trespassing.”
Meanwhile, the Somali Mission to the U.N in New York has received thousands of calls since Friday.
Secretary Omar Jamal said while he doesn’t dispute Mohamud intended to commit a very serious crime, something about the terror takedown doesn’t seem right.
“All these legal concerns. How did the government conduct themselves; what did they do? Did they give money to this guy? What was the nature of their engagement to them? All of this will come out through the due process in the court of law,” he said by phone Monday.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about the case for the first time Monday and said Mohamud was given multiple chances by the FBI to stop his plan.
“We were able to thwart somebody who clearly had the intention, by his own words and by his actions, to harm a great many people. …” he said. “This was an individual who was given a number of opportunities to desist from his course of action but at every turn decided he wanted to continue. But for the interaction that he had with the FBI, he might have come into contact with somebody who in fact would have made his plans tragically real.”
KATU News anchor Angelica Thornton contributed to this report.
CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) - Patrols around mosques and other Islamic sites in Portland have been stepped up as Muslim leaders expressed fears of retribution, days after a Somali-American man was accused of trying to blow up a van full of explosives during the city's Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
Portland Mayor Sam Adams said Sunday that he beefed up protection around mosques "and other facilities that might be vulnerable to knuckle-headed retribution" after hearing of the bomb plot.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud is due to appear in court at 1:30 p.m. Monday to face charges that could send him to prison for the resto fo his life.
The move followed a fire Sunday at the Islamic center in Corvallis, a college town about 75 miles southwest of Portland, where suspect Mohamud occasionally worshipped, prompting an FBI arson investigation and concern about the potential for more retaliation.
Mohamud, 19, was being held on charges of plotting to carry out a terror attack Friday on a crowd of thousands at Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square.
His attorney, Stephen R. Sady, who has represented terrorism suspects held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, didn't return a telephone message left Sunday by The Associated Press.
The suspect's mother, Maryan Hassan, declined to discuss the issue when contacted by phone late Sunday by the AP, referring all questions to Sady. His father also refused to comment.
Somali leaders in Oregon - a state that has been largely accepting of Muslims - gathered with Portland city leaders Sunday evening to denounce violence and call for help for at-risk Somali youth.
"We left Somalia because of war, and we would like to live in peace as part of the American community," said Kayse Jama, executive director of a local organization founded after the 9/11 attacks to fight anti-Muslim sentiment. "We are Portlanders. We are Oregonians. We are Americans, and we would like to be treated that way. We are your co-workers, your neighbors."
Earlier Sunday, worshippers at the damaged Islamic center expressed concern about retribution.
"I've prayed for my family and friends, because obviously if someone was deliberate enough to do this, what's to stop them from coming to our homes and our schools?" said Mohamed Alyagouri, a 31-year-old father of two who worships at the center. "I'm afraid for my children getting harassed from their teachers, maybe from their friends."
Yosof Wanly, the center's imam, said he was thinking about temporarily relocating his family because of the possibility of hate crimes.
"We know how it is, we know some people due to ignorance are going to perceive of these things and hold most Muslims accountable," Wanly said. But he said Corvallis has long been accepting of Muslims.
Omar Jamal, first secretary for the Somali mission to the United Nations in New York City, told The Associated Press his office has received "thousands of calls" from Somalis in the United States who are concerned about tactics used by federal agents in the sting operation against Mohamud.
An FBI affidavit said agents began investigating after receiving a tip from an unidentified person who expressed concern about Mohamud.
An agent e-mailed Mohamud, pretending to be affiliated with one of the people overseas whom Mohamud had tried to contact. Undercover agents then set up a series of face-to-face meetings with Mohamud at hotels in Portland and Corvallis.
Authorities said they allowed the plot to proceed to obtain evidence to charge the suspect with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Jamal said there is concern in the Somali community that Mohamud was "lured into an illegal act."
"Rest assured that the community is very against anyone who tries to do harm to the citizens of this country," he said. But many Somalis in the United States are wondering whether Mohammud's rights were violated by federal agents, he said.
Why "did they tell him to go along with this heinous crime?" Jamal said.
The FBI affidavit said it was Mohamud who picked the target of the bomb plot, that he was warned several times about the seriousness of his plan, that women and children could die, and that he could back out.
Officials said Mohamud had no formal ties to foreign terror groups, although he had reached out to suspected terrorists in Pakistan.
After the FBI got a tip about Mohamud, an agent e-mailed him over the summer, pretending to be affiliated with an "unindicted associate" whom Mohamud had tried to contact.
Agents had some face-to-face meetings with Mohamud. On Nov. 4, in the backcountry along Oregon's coast, they convinced him that he was testing an explosive device - although the explosion was controlled by agents.
On Friday, an agent and Mohamud drove into downtown Portland in a white van that carried six 55-gallon drums with detonation cords and plastic caps, but all of them were inert.
Mozafar Wanly, father of the imam at the Salman Al-Farisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, said the fact that Mohamud was e-mailing someone in Pakistan shows nobody in the U.S. supported his extremist ideology.
"He's reaching for people outside because he doesn't find any terrorists here," he said.
The fire at the center was reported at 2:15 a.m., and evidence at the scene led authorities to believe it was set intentionally, said Carla Pusateri, a fire prevention officer for the Corvallis Fire Department.
Authorities don't know who started the blaze or why, but they believe the center was targeted because Mohamud sometimes worshipped there.
Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon, said there's no conclusive link to the bombing in Portland or specific evidence that it's a hate crime, other than the timing.
There were no injuries in Sunday's fire, which burned 80 percent of the center's office but did not spread to worship areas or any other rooms, said Yosof Wanly, the center's imam.
"Just as American Muslims repudiate any act that would threaten our nation's safety and security, we ask our fellow citizens to reject any attacks on Muslims or their religious institutions," said Arsalan Bukhari of the Seattle chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The FBI was working closely with leadership at the Corvallis center as agents investigated the fire, Balizan said. The bureau has established a telephone tip line and a $10,000 reward has been offered for information leading to an arrest.
Wanly said Mohamud moved to the U.S. from Somalia as a young boy. Mohamud graduated from high school in the Portland suburb of Beaverton and attended Oregon State University but dropped out on Oct. 6.
He described Mohamud as a normal student who went to athletic events.
Tyler Napier, 17, who lived next door to the family for three years, told a Portland TV station that he used to play pickup basketball with Mohamud.
"We would always be outside playing in the street together," he said. "It's really scary to think about . . . I talked to him, went to school with him, now he's trying to blow up the Square - it's like a reality check I guess."
Alex Masak, a classmate of Mohamud's at Westview High School in Beaverton, told another local station that he recently received a strange message from him, out of the blue.
"He texted me asking if I knew of any places where he could shoot guns off where nobody would hear," said Masak. "I didn't think much of it," he said.
Jesse Day, spokesman for the Muslim American and Arab American Leaders of Oregon, said Sunday morning that Mohamud's father, Osman Barre, was "mortified" and "very tearful" on Saturday night.
Duara reported from Portland. Associated Press writers William McCall and Tim Fought also contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)