PORTLAND — A Somali-born Oregon State University student plotted to carry out a car bomb attack at a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony in downtown Portland on Friday, but the bomb turned out to be a dud supplied by undercover agents as part of a sting, federal prosecutors said.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, was arrested at 5:40 p.m. just after he dialed a cell phone that he thought would blow up a van laden with explosives but instead brought federal agents and Portland police swooping in to take him into custody.
Mohamud yelled “Allahu Akbar!” — Arabic for “God is great!” and tried to kick agents and police as the arrest came, according to prosecutors.
He was charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
Mohamud is a naturalized U.S. citizen who is a student at Oregon State University, studying “non-degree pre-engineering,” according to a university source and a listing in OSU’s student directory.
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U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton released federal court documents Friday that show the sting operation began in June after an undercover agent learned that Mohamud had been in contact with an “unindicted associate” in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier region.
According to a federal complaint, Mohamud was in regular e-mail contact with the “unindicted associate” in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier starting in August 2009.
The complaint states that in December 2009 Mohamud and the “unindicted associate” used coded language in an e-mail in which the FBI believes Mohamud discussed traveling to Pakistan to prepare for “violent jihad.”
The document says in the months that followed Mohamud made “multiple efforts” to contact another “unindicted associate” to arrange travel to Pakistan but had a faulty e-mail address for that person.
Last June an FBI agent contacted Mohamud “under the guise of being affiliated with the first associate.”
Mohamud and the undercover agent agreed to meet in Portland on July 30. At that meeting, the undercover agent and Mohamud “discussed violent jihad,” according to the court document.
Mohamud told the agent he wanted to set off explosives at the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, an event that occurred on Friday.
Agents cautioned Mohamud about the grave nature of his plans, to which he reportedly replied he wanted to see the bomb victims in 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.”
A statement from the FBI in Portland further stated that on Nov. 4, Mohamud and agents went to a remote spot in Lincoln County “where they detonated a bomb concealed in a backpack as a trial run for the upcoming attack. Afterwards, 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.’ ”
When they arrived back in Corvallis, Mohamud recorded a video reading a statement explaining his rationale for the bomb attack.
The agents took Mohamud to Portland on Nov. 18 to finalize details of the attack.
On Friday, an undercover 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 got out of the van and walked to meet another undercover agent, who drove to Union Station, the Portland train station, where Mohamud was given a cell phone that he thought would blow up the van, according to the complaint.
Mohamud dialed the phone agents had given him, and was told the bomb did not detonate. The undercover agents suggested he get out of the car and try again to improve the signal, and when he did, he was arrested, the complaint said.
U.S. authorities have been struggling against a recent spate of terror plans by U.S. citizens or residents.
In the Times Square plot, Faisal Shazhad 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.
Also in October, a Hawaii man was arrested and accused of making false statements to the FBI about his plans to attend terrorist training in Pakistan.
In August, a Virginia man was caught trying to leave the country to fight with an al-Qaida-affiliated group in Somalia.
The FBI was assisted in its investigation by Corvallis Police, Oregon State Police and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s office as well as the Portland Police Bureau.
William McCall of The Associated Press reported much of this story.