The alleged planning of a bomb attack last week at the holiday tree lighting in Pioneer Courthouse Square left one 19-year-old arrested and a bunch of questions for the rest of us.
At Mohamed Osman Mohamud’s initial appearance in federal court Nov. 29, the Somali-born man pleaded innocent to a charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
As the FBI takes credit for foiling an attack agents said could have killed thousands Nov. 26—and Mohamud’s attorneys plot his defense—here are the five most noteworthy pieces of this puzzle:
1. WHAT THE DEFENDANT’S CLASSMATES SAY
The picture federal law enforcement officials paint of a young man bent on destruction does not jibe with recollections from Mohamud’s former classmates at Jackson Middle School in Southwest Portland.
“He’s always been so quiet,” says Joslyn McLaughlin, now a 20-year-old student at University of Oregon. “He wouldn’t go out of his way to say hello, but no one would have ever suspected this.”
That’s not to say Mohamud didn’t stand out, even at Jackson, where the Somali population of roughly two dozen students is substantial compared with other schools in the Portland Public Schools district.
Classmates of Mohamud at Jackson when he was a student there from 2002 to 2005 referred to the boy as one of “the Mohameds,” owing to the fact there were three other students with the same first name at Jackson.
Former students at Jackson who recall this say the nickname was never intended to be disparaging. Rather, it was a sign the four young men formed a tight clique along with other Muslim students.
THEN AND NOW: Mohamud’s photo in the sixth grade, and his mugshot after his Nov. 26 arrest.
Tom Halley, another classmate, called Mohamud “pretty normal.” But by the end of eighth grade, Mohamud socialized less frequently with non-Muslim students, Halley says. “By high school, they pretty much stuck to themselves.”
Mohamud left Portland Public Schools in June 2005 after eighth grade.
He then enrolled at Westview High School in the Beaverton School District, which has a similar Somali population compared with an estimated 335 in PPS—320 out of 38,000 students, or less than 1 percent.
If Mohamud grew increasingly radical, it’s still not clear how or when that happened. After Westview, Mohamud enrolled as a non-degree-seeking student at Oregon State University, where he took pre-engineering, intermittently, from 2009 to October 2010. His closest friends from those two stops couldn’t be reached for comment.
But Andy Stull, a current student at OSU who also shared a locker with Mohamud at Jackson eight years ago, says he saw his former classmate at a fraternity party around February. Mohamud appeared to be the same.
In Mohamud’s sixth-grade yearbook at Jackson, his photograph suggests nothing unusual. And the yearbook is a typical version of the American school staple—in this instance wrapped in the image of an American flag with a picture of the Statue of Liberty. It carries the title “Let Freedom Ring.”—Beth Slovic
2. WHAT THE FBI AFFIDAVIT REVEALS ABOUT MOHAMUD AND HIS DEFENSE
The 36-page affidavit FBI Special Agent Ryan Dwyer swore out Nov. 26—the day of Mohamud’s arrest—raises several questions about the accused bomber wannabe.
First, there’s the question of whether Mohamud is an unwitting dupe or a clever plotter.
Dwyer’s affidavit says after Mohamud spent months sending emails to a wrong address in an attempt to link up with a jihadi, Mohamud went to PDX on June 14 hoping to fly to Alaska for a summer job.
DEFENSE: Mohamud’s attorneys, Stephen Sady and Steven Wax, address a crush of reporters Nov. 29 outside the federal courthouse. IMAGE: Darryl James
Authorities did not allow Mohamud to board his plane. Instead he endured an FBI grilling. (The FBI and U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton declined to comment on how Mohamud first attracted scrutiny.)
“Mohamud said that he had previously intended to travel to Yemen but had never obtained a ticket or a visa,” the affidavit states, adding that he confirmed communicating with a person identified as “Unindicted Associate One” who “was located in the northwest frontier province of Pakistan, an area known to harbor terrorists.”
Just nine days after the feds questioned him, Mohamud was gullible enough to respond to an unsolicited email from a person referred to in the affidavit only as an “FBI undercover employee.”
Agent Dwyer’s affidavit also undercuts a claim Mohamud made in conversation with his alleged undercover co-conspirators—that he was inspired to jihad at age 15 by the terrorist raid on a hotel in Mumbai, India. “Mohamud was seventeen, not fifteen at the time of the 2008 Mumbai attacks,” Dwyer notes.
Mohamud’s arraignment Monday, Nov. 29, filled a hallway on the 11th floor of Portland’s federal courthouse. About 200 people, including reporters and citizens, crushed together outside the doors to U.S. Magistrate John Acosta’s courtroom. The judge estimated a trial would take 15 days and set a tentative date for Feb. 1.
Another aspect of Dwyer’s affidavit arose at Monday’s hearing.
Mohamud’s attorney, federal public defender Stephen Sady, signaled that he will focus at least part of his defense on an apparent technical glitch Dwyer noted in his affidavit.
Recounting the first of seven meetings between Mohamud and undercover FBI employees, Dwyer wrote: “[The FBI undercover employee] was equipped with audio equipment to record the meeting. However, due to technical problems the meeting was not recorded.”
A logical defense argument might be that by providing Mohamud resources and opportunity he otherwise lacked, the FBI entrapped him. Thus, the absence of a tape recording of the first meeting raises questions about how much direction and encouragement the FBI provided.
“In the cases involving potential entrapment, it’s the first meeting that matters,” Sady told the court. Holton declined to respond to that argument.—Nigel Jaquiss and James Pitkin
3. MOHAMUD’S LIKELY DEFENSE STRATEGY
Mohamud’s lawyers have indicated they’re almost certain to use an entrapment defense. At his Nov. 29 arraignment, Sady accused “sophisticated government agents” in the FBI of “basically grooming” his teenage client, who was one year out of graduating from Westview High School in Beaverton.
Some of Portland’s top criminal-defense lawyers agree entrapment may be Mohamud’s best defense.
“I’d like to find out his emotional stability [and] his maturity level. There’s a big question whether he had the mental makeup to do it on his own,” says defense lawyer Pat Birmingham, whose past clients include Kyle Brewster, one of three men convicted in the 1988 killing of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw.
But many of the details in the FBI’s court affidavit appear designed to defuse any entrapment argument. They allege Mohamud came up with the time and place to bomb and that the FBI laid out for him nonviolent options for jihad.
“[U.S. Attorney] Dwight Holton is a very cautious prosecutor,” says defense lawyer Bob Weaver, a former federal prosecutor who defended Mayor Sam Adams in the 2009 criminal investigation of the Beau Breedlove scandal. “I am assuming that the FBI and the U.S Attorney’s Office have been very cautious about how they’ve approached this.” To consider the likelihood of an entrapment argument working, consider an almost identical case last year in Texas.
In September 2009, the FBI provided Hosam Smadi, a 19-year-old Jordanian citizen, with a truck containing an inert bomb. Undercover FBI employees had contacted Smadi online six months prior and helped him plot to blow up a 60-story office building in downtown Dallas.
Smadi’s public defender, Peter Fleury, was prepared to go to trial. But with the trial looming this past May, Smadi instead pleaded guilty. He was sentenced in October to 24 years in prison.
Henry Klingeman, a New Jersey defense lawyer who lost a 2005 terrorism trial after mounting an entrapment defense for his client, says juries aren’t prepared to give a defendant the benefit of the doubt he wouldn’t have acted without the FBI’s help.
“It was a great legal defense on Sept. 10 (2001),” Klingeman says. “It’s been a lousy defense since.”—James Pitkin
4. WHY THE FEDS SEEM OBSESSED WITH HOMEGROWN TERRORISM
Mohamud’s alleged crime attempt may seem incredible. And acquaintances’ description of him as a hoops-loving, rapping Beaverton teen may not fit many people’s idea of a jihadi.
But Mitchell D. Silber, a New York Police Department terrorism analyst described an archetype resembling Mohamud to a T in his 2007 report “Radicalization in the West: The Home-Grown Threat.”
Terrorism experts now widely cite Silber’s 90-page study as one that shows why homegrown terrorism is catching the feds’ attention. After reviewing numerous terrorist plots since 9/11, Silber concluded the biggest threat comes from within—from “unremarkable,” middle-class males aged 15 to 35, not foreign agents.
“The transformation of a Western-based individual to a terrorist is not triggered by oppression, suffering, revenge or desperation. Rather, it is a phenomenon that occurs because the individual is looking for an identity and a cause and, unfortunately, often finds them in the extremist Islam,” Silber writes.
“There is no useful profile to assist law enforcement or intelligence to predict who will follow this trajectory of radicalization,” he adds. “Rather, the individuals who take this course begin as ‘unremarkable’ from various walks
While there has been speculation that Mohamud’s family turned him in or that he attracted scrutiny because Somali immigrants in Minnesota and other states have plotted terrorist attacks, another possible explanation is that he contributed articles to the online website “Jihad Recollections.”
Terrorism investigators monitor such sites closely, although neither FBI spokeswoman Beth Ann Steele nor Holton, the U.S. Attorney for Oregon, would comment on how agents first came upon Mohamud.
Relative to its small population, Oregon has seen an outsized number of terrorism prosecutions—including four previous high-profile cases since 9/11.
Holton declined to speculate why Oregon spawns so many plots, although he acknowledges that he spends a disproportionate amount of his time—about half—on national security issues, including a recent espionage case involving a rogue CIA agent; money laundering; and other terrorism-related cases.—Nigel Jaquiss
5. THE DISCONCERTING EFFECT ON THE SOMALI COMMUNITY
Muslim leaders and Somali community members in Portland rushed to condemn the violent plot after the allegations against Mohamud first surfaced Friday.
But their condemnation quickly turned to worry for the safety of Somalis and other Portlanders of Muslim faith after a report emerged that one Muslim woman was verbally attacked by a young man in Southeast Portland on Saturday.
Then, on Sunday, the Corvallis mosque where Mohamud had infrequently attended prayer services erupted in fire. The FBI announced a $10,000 reward for tips as part of its investigation into that attack, which inspectors said caused “substantial damage.”
KAYSE JAMA: “This is a wake-up call for the Somali community. [Somali youth] are falling through the cracks.” IMAGE: Darryl James
Portland’s Somali community is about 8,000 and growing, according to Kayse Jama, the Somali executive director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing.
Abdi Jamac, a Portland Public Schools employee who works with Somali students, says some parents were so concerned they considered keeping their children out of school Monday as classes resumed following the holiday weekend.
“We’re shocked,” Jamac says. “It’s not something we thought would happen here.”
Some advocates for refugees also expressed concern that Muslim Portlanders who appear Somali but are, in fact, Somali Bantu may be targeted unfairly as well. Elisabeth Gern, a social services coordinator for Catholic Charities, works with Somali Bantu families. She fears Somali Bantu could be attacked even though they don’t identify as Somali. “Outsiders don’t make the distinction,” Gern says.
She adds, “They don’t feel connected to the crime, but they feel very much offended by the burning of the mosque [in Corvallis].”
Somali Bantu and Somalis do share concern for the educational opportunities available to their children in the Portland area.
Jama, speaking on behalf of some members of the refugee community earlier this week, said Somali youth need far more support in Portland than they currently get.
Recognizing this, educators with Portland Public Schools have pressed without success to hire additional Somali-speaking parent liaisons.
“This is a wake-up call for the Somali community,” Jama says. “[Somali youth] are falling through the cracks.”—Beth Slovic