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.
Portland police officials said thousands of people would attend the tree-lighting ceremony that night, which featured the popular musical group Pink Martini.
Mohamud attached a blasting cap to the fake bomb, and the FBI operative turned on the cellphone, court documents said. They left the van on the southeast corner of the square, near a bank and the federal courthouse, and drove to Union Station, a train station less than a mile away, according to an FBI affidavit.
In the parking lot, the FBI operative gave Mohamud the cellphone and read the number he needed to dial to detonate the bomb, the affidavit said.
"Mohamud appeared so eager, that he started to read and dial the number off the paper (the operative) was holding faster than (the operative) could recite it,'' the affidavit said.
The call went through. Nothing.
The operative suggested Mohamud step outside to get a better signal, according to the affidavit. He dialed the number again and was grabbed by authorities and arrested, officials said.
Mohamud was born in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 1991, the year that country's deadly civil war began. It is unclear when he arrived in the United States, but at some point, he joined Portland's fast-growing Somali population and became a U.S. citizen.
Todd Simmons, a spokesman for Oregon State University, said Mohamud graduated from high school in Portland and began attending the university as a non-degree student last fall. He has not been enrolled since Oct. 6.
Mohamud told the FBI that he became radicalized at age 15 and had been thinking about violent jihad ever since, documents said.
According to the affidavit, he began taking action last year when he exchanged e-mails with a co-conspirator who had terrorist ties and was in Pakistan's northwest province, a haven for radical groups. An FBI undercover operative sent Mohamud an e-mail in June saying he was an associate of that co-conspirator.
An elaborate set of encounters ensued, in which Mohamud met with two FBI operatives. At the first meeting in Portland, in July, Mohamud said he wanted to carry out an "explosion" but needed help, court papers said.
At a second meeting, in August, he identified the square as a target, the documents said. Over the past three months, Mohamud worked closely with the operatives and gave them a thumb drive with detailed instructions for the attack, officials said.
On Nov. 4, Mohamud and his FBI collaborators detonated a bomb concealed in a backpack in a remote Oregon location as a trial run. That same day, he recorded a video, wearing a white robe and white and red headdress, in which he offered his rationale for the attack, court documents said.
"Explode on these (infidels),'' he concluded, according to the documents. "Alleviate our pain.''
Staff writer Kelly Johnson and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.