This week, the man federal officials say tried to bomb the Pioneer Courthouse Square Christmas tree lighting ceremony more than two years ago finally goes on trial.
The defendant is Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who was a disaffected 19-year-old Oregon State University student when, federal officials say, he tried to set off a bomb as thousands of people gathered downtown for the ceremony on Nov. 26, 2010.
The trial will receive national attention—largely because it will replay the drama of how Portland might have faced a yuletide 9/11. Federal officials will portray Mohamud’s arrest as yet another victory in their fight against terrorism.
Mohamud’s defense will argue that it was the FBI that put a phony detonator in his hands, gave him cash to buy materials (and even pay his rent) while nudging him toward the actions he would have never taken on his own.
Now, a new book argues the arrest and trial of Mohamud are part of a larger strategy, one in which the FBI used a cookie-cutter method it has been applying across the nation to create “terrorists” where there is none.
That’s the conclusion investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson draws in his searing new book, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.
His book shadows the start of Mohamud’s bomb-plot trial, set to begin Jan. 10 in U.S. District Court in Portland.
Aaronson’s book is an outgrowth of his award-winning 2011 Mother Jones cover story about the FBI’s counterterrorism program.
Aaronson’s book shows that Mohamud—who faces a life sentence if convicted—had Al Qaeda sympathies, but was hardly capable of pulling off a terrorist act without the FBI and its informants pushing him into it.
Of the cases of 508 defendants he’s examined, Aaronson writes, “I could count on one hand the number of actual terrorists.”
The rest, he writes, are like Mohamud: victims of a network of more than 15,000 FBI informants backed by $3 billion a year to infiltrate Muslim communities and create terrorists who aren’t there.
Aaronson found that FBI officials—while sincere in their determination to prevent terrorist attacks—are nonetheless seeking to justify the massive amounts of money spent on the war on terror.
But with intelligence agencies from several nations focused on Al Qaeda, Aaronson says, the FBI concluded a large-scale, 9/11-style attack wasn’t likely. Instead, the agency has become obsessed with the prospect of a lone-wolf attack by a radicalized sympathizer.
WW is publishing an excerpt from Aaronson’s book about the Portland case that speaks to a troubling pattern in many of the FBI’s other terrorist cases: missing evidence.
Namely, FBI recordings of meetings with their targets are often missing, Aaronson shows, because of what the FBI claims are “recorder malfunctions.” As he points out, these “failures” repeatedly occur at key moments—such as when FBI informants first meet their targets—as happened in the Mohamud case.
These are the moments that might best prove federal agents improperly lured their targets into phony plots.
Yet, at the same
time, Aaronson argues, Mohamud’s attorneys’ cries of entrapment—based on
other trials—are probably doomed to fail.
From The Terror Factory by Trevor Aaronson. Copyright © 2013 by Trevor Aaronson. Reprinted by permission of Ig Publishing. All rights reserved.
Because so many of the informants that the FBI uses in terrorism stings are men with histories of crime, fraud and deception—in short, not the most credible people to put on a witness stand during a trial—the Bureau relies heavily on secretly recording the conversations between its informants and the individuals they target.
When an informant lacks credibility or has a financial interest in gaining a conviction, a taped conversation showing the target going along with the plot can often make up for those deficiencies with a jury. As a result, in the terrorism sting cases that have gone to trial since 9/11, prosecutors have played hours of taped conversations between informants and targets for juries.
However, in analyzing these cases, I noticed a disturbing pattern of conversations between informants and targets not being recorded at the most suspicious of times.
These “missing recordings” seem to occur at either the beginning of a sting, when informants are establishing their relationships with targets—a period of time defense lawyers consider crucial to determining whether the government induced or entrapped the defendant—or when the target is thinking of backing out of the plot or otherwise doing something that has the potential to undermine the government’s case.
No matter what part of a sting goes unrecorded, the government routinely blames “recorder malfunction” for the lapse.
The most egregious example of the mysterious and persistent FBI trend of recorder malfunction happened when two separate terrorism sting cases, located 2,800 miles apart from each other, converged in a most unexpected way in 2010.
The first sting centered on an Oregon party boy who developed a peculiar hatred for the United States. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a young Somali American, attended Oregon State University in Corvallis. He prayed at the Salman al-Farisi mosque, but many of his fellow congregants kept their distance from him, as Mohamud pushed an extreme, 100-year-old Sunni brand of Islam known as Salafism—whose adherents, among them Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders, seek to emulate the ways of the Prophet Mohammed and the earliest days of Islam.
Mohamud, however, led a life at odds with that of his religion, drinking alcohol and engaging in premarital sex, two activities prohibited under most interpretations of the Koran.
It was Mohamud’s partying that first brought him to the attention of the FBI. On the day after Halloween 2009, a woman reported to the Oregon State Police that Mohamud had raped her after a party the night before. Other students at the party told police that Mohamud and the woman had been together, dancing, flirting and drinking, and at the end of the night, they had left together. Nothing seemed to be wrong between them, the witnesses said. But the next morning, the woman told the police that she believed she had been drugged—a stranger, she said, had given her a beer at the party that might have been spiked with something— because she couldn’t remember the details of having sex with Mohamud. (A test for any type of date rape drugs later came back negative.)
That evening, Oregon State Police asked Mohamud, then 18, to come to the campus police station for questioning. At the station, Mohamud told police he hadn’t drugged or raped the woman, but said that they had gone to the party and then had consensual sex afterward. Police released Mohamud without charging him, but the next day, they called him back to the station to submit to a polygraph examination, which Mohamud agreed to.
What he didn’t know as he took the test was that FBI agents were watching from another room, where they heard Mohamud discuss his personal background, educational plans, family and opinions of Somalia. “Mohamud is very concerned that his parents will freak out if they find out about the investigation or his use of drugs and alcohol,” an FBI agent wrote in a report following the polygraph.
Mohamud agreed to allow officers to search his laptop and his mobile phone. What Mohamud didn’t know was that the Oregon State Police later gave a disk to the FBI containing four folders from his hard drive as well as three pages of information from his cellphone. The Oregon State Police did not charge Mohamud with a crime following the rape investigation.
To this day, the FBI has not disclosed why it was interested in a date rape suspect at OSU and what information was on Mohamud’s laptop and cellphone. The only fact the Bureau has revealed was that agents believed Mohamud was corresponding by email with a man in Northwest Pakistan, an area known for harboring terrorists, about a religious school in Yemen.
In June 2010, more than six months after the rape investigation was closed, the FBI placed Mohamud on the federal no-fly list, at which time FBI agents interviewed him and he disclosed his intention to travel to Yemen. Later that month, on June 23, 2010, the FBI sting operation began in earnest.
The FBI believed that Mohamud had tried, but failed, to contact terrorists in Pakistan by email. An FBI informant then emailed Mohamud, pretending to be part of the terrorist group he’d reportedly been trying to reach, claiming to have received Mohamud’s email address from the man he was trying to contact in Pakistan. The email read, in part and in all lowercase letters: “sorry for the delay in our communication, we’ve been on the move… are you still able to help the brothers?”
Mohamud replied to the email, but was skeptical. Mohamud wanted “to make sure you are not a spy yourself,” he wrote, and asked how the email’s author knew the man he’d been emailing. The undercover agent said he’d heard about Mohamud and received his email address from a mutual acquaintance, explaining cryptically that “a brother from Oregon who is now far away vouched for you.” Mohamud agreed to meet with the man he believed was a terrorist in Portland on July 30, 2010.
At the meeting, Mohamud told an undercover agent that he had written some articles that had been published in Jihad Recollections, a pro-Al Qaeda magazine. The undercover FBI agent asked Mohamud what he was willing to do for the cause. Mohamud, who told the agent he “wanted to wage war in the U.S.,” said he had been dreaming since he was 15 years old about training with Al Qaeda in Yemen.
If he wanted to get involved, the undercover agent told Mohamud, he had several options. He could pray five times a day and spread the word about Islam. He could continue studying, obtain his medical degree and assist Al Qaeda as a doctor. He could raise money for terrorists overseas. Or he could become operational today, becoming a shaheed, or martyr.
Mohamud chose the last option, saying he wanted to put together an explosive device. The FBI agent told Mohamud to research possible targets, and that they’d meet again soon.
You would think this critical encounter, the first in-person meeting between Mohamud and an undercover agent, would have been recorded, but it wasn’t.
The FBI did set up audio and video equipment, but due to a “malfunction,” they weren’t able to record the meeting. All the information about what was said is based on the FBI agent’s memory.
Three weeks after that first meeting, Mohamud and the undercover agent met in a hotel room, and this time the recording equipment worked. Joining the FBI agent on this occasion was a second undercover agent who was posing as a weapons expert. Mohamud had done what he’d been told to do during the first meeting and came with a target in mind.
“Pioneer Square, like, Portland, is, like, the main meeting—they have a 26th of November Christmas lighting and some 250,000 people come,” Mohamud told the agents.
The undercover agents asked Mohamud whether he was concerned that such a target could result in children being harmed or killed.
“That’s what I’m looking for—a huge mass,” he replied. “Attacked in their own element.”
He’d push the button to detonate the bomb, the agents asked, even with children in the blast zone?
“Yes, I will push the button,” he answered. “When I see the enemy of Allah, then you know their bodies are torn everywhere.”
The following month, September 2010, Mohamud met again with the two agents, who told him that the plan was moving forward and asked him to find a suitable area to plant the bomb near Pioneer Square and to purchase some components for the weapon, including two Nokia prepaid cellphones, a toggle switch and a nine-volt battery connector.
They explained to Mohamud how the bomb would work: He’d place it at the target, then dial a cellphone to detonate the weapon remotely.
“When you dial that phone number, all of this is going to be gone,” the second undercover agent said, referring to the two blocks around Pioneer Square.
Despite his supposed desire to “wage war in the U.S.,” without the FBI’s assistance, not only was Mohamud incapable of becoming a terrorist, since he lacked the skills necessary to build a bomb or the money and contacts to obtain weapons, he was on the verge of being thrown into the streets, as he was broke and running behind on the rent for his apartment.
But the FBI didn’t let those details stall the sting operation, as the undercover agents gave Mohamud $2,700 to cover his rent and another $110 for the bomb components.
On Oct. 3, 2010, Mohamud dropped off the bomb components the undercover agents had requested. The undercover agents picked up Mohamud that same day and drove him to a hotel. He described Pioneer Square to them in detail and then laid out a plan, including where they should plant the bomb.
“It’s gonna be a fireworks show,” Mohamud said, showing agents pictures on his laptop of specific parking spots near Pioneer Square. He handed one of the agents a thumb drive with the images. The undercover agents then demonstrated to Mohamud how to detonate the bomb once he had it in position.
“Do you remember when 9/11 happened, when those people were jumping from skyscrapers? I thought that was awesome,” Mohamud told them. “I want to see that; that’s what I want for these people. I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured.” The undercover agents then recorded a video of Mohamud in which he threatened the United States, praised Allah and read a poem.
On Nov. 23, 2010, the undercover agents drove Mohamud to a storage unit they had rented to store the bomb materials, which included two barrels, a gasoline can, electrical wires and a large box of screws. The three of them loaded the materials into the car, as well as reflective traffic markers, hard hats, safety glasses, vests and gloves—all props for their cover.
Three days later, on Nov. 26, the day of the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, the agents met Mohamud in a hotel room. The bomb was now assembled, though Mohamud didn’t know it was inert.
“Beautiful,” he said of the weapon.
Mohamud and the undercover agents put the bomb in the car and drove to Pioneer Square, which was packed with people. They parked in one of the spots Mohamud had scouted out, then walked away from the vehicle, hard hats on so as not to raise suspicion.
From a safe distance, Mohamud dialed the number that he believed would detonate the bomb. It failed. He dialed again. That’s when FBI agents rushed in and arrested him. He kicked and screamed as he was surrounded. “Allahu Akbar!” he yelled. “God is great! Allahu Akbar!”
Announcements of terrorism stings always make for big news in the cities in which they occur, but Mohamud’s arrest—involving a bomb plot in a crowded downtown area—drew more interest than most. It immediately made national news, splashing across the front pages of newspapers and getting covered by every broadcast and cable-television news outlet in the country.
It is at this point that the Mohamud case converged with another FBI terrorism sting. Antonio Martinez was a 22-year-old who, with the help of an informant and an undercover FBI agent, was plotting to bomb a military recruiting center outside Baltimore.
Martinez was one of the millions of people who heard the news of Mohamud’s arrest in Oregon. At the time, he was the unknowing target of an FBI sting that seemed just like the one that had ensnared Mohamud.
After seeing news of Mohamud’s arrest, Martinez became worried. Was he, too, being lured into a trap?
On Nov. 27, 2010, the day after Mohamud’s arrest, Martinez called his supposed terrorist contact, explaining that he had seen a story on the news about a man in Portland who had tried to detonate a bomb. The whole thing was a setup, Martinez told his contact, and he needed to know what was going on with their operation in Baltimore.
“I’m not falling for no BS,” he said. His contact was an FBI informant who told Martinez they should meet in person. He agreed.
In the entire sting, this meeting was the most important one, as Martinez had grown suspicious and was ready to back out of the plot.
What would the FBI operative say to Martinez to keep him on board?
We’ll never know because their conversation wasn’t recorded. In an affidavit, the FBI blamed this on a recorder malfunction.
Whatever the informant said during this unrecorded meeting, his words were enough to calm down Martinez. The next day, Martinez told the informant by phone: “I’m just ready to move forward.”
A week later,
Martinez was arrested in a scene almost identical to Mohamud’s. He tried
to detonate a car bomb remotely. It failed. When he tried a second
time, FBI agents arrested him.
If you take a close look at the more than 150 terrorism stings the FBI has engaged in since 9/11, you’ll find missing recordings in nearly every one.
While some are like the Martinez case— an important meeting going unrecorded due to what is reported to be recorder malfunction—more often, it is the initial encounters between the informant and the target, a critical time in a sting operation, that aren’t recorded.
Defense lawyers have repeatedly used unrecorded conversations in trying to sell juries on entrapment defenses, arguing that these meetings, if taped, would have contained statements that proved the FBI’s informant came up with the idea for the plot and induced the targets into moving forward with it.
But juries so far haven’t bought that argument. Since 9/11, approximately 50 terrorism defendants in those 150 stings have been involved in plots in which the informant could fairly be described as an agent provocateur, someone who provided not only the plan but also the means and opportunity for the terrorist plot.
Ten of these defendants have formally argued entrapment during their trials. Yet none of these defendants was successful in convincing a jury that they’d been entrapped, that is, that they wouldn’t have committed their crimes were it not for the FBI informant instigating them in the first place.
If the only effective measure is based on court verdicts, then terrorism sting operations have become a proven product for the Bureau.
And this product carries another benefit: A terrorism sting gives the FBI, under pressure to show results, something to hold up—a dangerous terrorist caught on tape, convicted at trial, sentenced to decades in prison—as evidence to the public that it is doing its job to safeguard the United States from another attack.
GO: Trevor Aaronson will appear at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Monday, Jan. 21. 7:30 pm. Free.