FBI foils elaborate bomb plot in Oregon

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.
By Jerry Markon
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 12:22 AM

Federal agents arrested an Oregon man intent on exploding a bomb and killing thousands of people at a nighttime Christmas tree lighting in Portland's central square, authorities said Saturday. The arrest culminated a sting in which the FBI worked extensively with the man and assembled the fake bomb that he twice tried to detonate Friday night.

The capture of Mohamed Osman Mohamud is the latest indication that the government is increasingly turning to undercover operatives to infiltrate extremist cells and fight what authorities call a wave of homegrown terrorism.

Agents arrested Mohamud moments after he tried to detonate a van he thought was packed with explosives in the crowded public square Friday night, the Justice Department said. As he was taken away, Mohamud, 19, kicked agents and screamed "Allahu Akbar!" - Arabic for "God is great,'' officials said. The bomb was an elaborate dud, assembled by FBI technicians.

Mohamud, a Somali-born naturalized U.S. citizen and former Oregon State University student, is expected to appear in federal court Monday. He faces up to life in prison if convicted of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. Neither an attorney for Mohamud or his family could be located Saturday.

Although the FBI's tactics of using undercover operatives have been controversial among Muslims, officials say they have successfully broken up numerous recent plots, including the attempted bombing of Metro stations in Northern Virginia and a plan to blow up a Dallas skyscraper. And it was a tip from the Muslim community that led the FBI to Mohamud, federal officials said.

Unlike other high-profile cases such as the attempted Times Square bombing in May, federal law enforcement officials said there is no evidence that a foreign terrorist group was behind the averted Portland attack. There were no indications of any U.S. collaborators, and officials emphasized that Mohamud's device posed no real danger to the public.

But authorities said the chilling details of Mohamud's alleged plot underscored the need for aggressive tactics against jihadis. Mohamud expressed a strong interest in violent jihad, chose the target and mailed bomb components to people he thought were assembling the device but were instead FBI operatives, court documents said. The documents indicate that he believes in a radical form of Islam.

Cautioned that children would attend the tree lighting, Mohamud is quoted as telling an undercover FBI operative that he was seeking a "huge mass that will . . . be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays. . . . I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured."

"The threat was very real," said Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon. "Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale." He added that the bureau carefully "denied him the ability to actually carry out the attack.''

Those efforts reached their climax Friday. About noon, Mohamud met at a Portland hotel with two undercover FBI operatives, court documents said. They walked to a white van parked nearby, where Mohamud is said to have admired the handiwork inside: six 55-gallon drums containing inert material, a detonation cord, blasting caps and a gallon of diesel fuel.

In the front seat was a cellphone that was to detonate the bomb. Mohamud smiled and said the phony device was "beautiful,'' documents said.

Nearly five hours later, Mohamud and one of the operatives drove the van to the target: Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square. Known locally as the city's "living room,'' it is a tree-lined open plaza in the heart of downtown that hosts more than 300 events each year.

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