Was FBI grooming Portland suspect for terror?
The FBI's elaborate sting operation that led to the arrest of Mohamed Osman Mohamud for allegedly trying to blow up a fake car bomb during a crowded Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland drew praise from many quarters. But Mohamud's defense attorney and some Muslim leaders questioned whether the FBI tactics went too far, essentially "grooming" the 19-year-old Somali to commit a terrorist attack.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PORTLAND — FBI undercover operatives helped fund Mohamed Osman Mohamud's would-be terrorism plot to detonate a car bomb during a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony on Friday at a crowded public square in the heart of the city.
Operatives helped him find components needed to create a bomb and schooled the 19-year-old Somali-born man in how to set off the explosives.
The sting operation enabled the FBI to amass a formidable amount of details about what a grand-jury indictment Monday charged was Mohamud's attempt to use a car bomb as a "weapon of mass destruction."
But Mohamud's attorneys and some local Muslims are raising questions about whether the operatives who posed as co-conspirators played their role too well.
Defense attorney Steve Sady questioned whether the operatives were "basically grooming" Mohamud to try to commit a terrorist attack.
"The information released by the government raises serious concerns about the government manufacturing a crime," according to a statement released by Sady and Steven Wax, public defenders assigned to represent Mohamud.
Mohamud, through his attorneys, pleaded not guilty on Monday.
Law-enforcement officials say that they gave Mohamud plenty of opportunities to opt out of the bomb plan and that he was committed to carrying out the crime at the time, place and location of his choosing.
"I am confident there is no entrapment here," Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday in Washington, D.C. "There were ... a number of opportunities ... that the defendant in this matter was given to retreat, to take a different path. He chose at every step to continue."
The handling of the case by the Justice Department and FBI won praise from some in Portland, including Mayor Sam Adams, who as a city commissioner earlier in his career voted in favor of removing the city from the joint terrorism task force formed by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies.
"I think this was a really smart response with the federal, state and local law enforcement that resulted in preventing someone with what looks like clear criminal intent to do harm, to do harm with a weapon of mass destruction," Adams told KOIN-TV in Portland.
Still, Imtiaz Khan, president of the Islamic Center of Portland and Masjed As-Saber, a mosque where Mohamud worshipped, said several people at the mosque had questioned why law enforcement helped orchestrate such an elaborate plan for a terrorist act.
"They're saying, 'Why allow it to get to this public stunt? To put the community on edge?' " Khan told The New York Times.
The case is the latest in a series of sting operations that have involved FBI undercover operatives or informants posing as terrorists to help make a case against would-be bombers.
One of those cases involved four men who sought to blow up two Jewish synagogues in New York with the help of an FBI informant who provided fake bombs. Despite claims of entrapment, they were convicted in October. Also this year, a Jordanian man who sought to use a decoy bomb provided by the FBI to blow up a downtown Dallas skyscraper pleaded guilty to an attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and received a sentence of up to 30 years.
The Portland sting ended in high drama Friday when Mohamud allegedly made a cellphone call that was supposed to detonate the bomb at the tree-lighting ceremony, where 10,000 people had gathered.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Portland quickly released a 36-page affidavit detailing the sting operation.
But defense attorneys attacked the prosecutor's office for turning the affidavit into a news release to promote the case, and also questioned why the Justice Department waited so long to make an arrest. By busting Mohamud during his attempt to detonate the mock bomb, rather than in an earlier phase of the operation, the Justice Department may have compromised Mohamud's ability to receive a fair trial, Wax said.
Mohamud came to Oregon as a young boy from Somalia. He thought of Portland as an area overlooked by law-enforcement officials. "They don't see it as a place where anything will happen," he told an FBI undercover operative, the affidavit says.
Yet, in the nine years since the Sept. 11 attacks, Portland has been the scene of significant terrorism investigations.
One investigation, which included surveillance of a Portland mosque, resulted in the 2002 indictment of a group of men, including a former intern from the mayor's office, for conspiracy to levy war against the United States and other charges. A high-profile case in 2004 involved a bungled fingerprint analysis that ended up with a Portland-area Muslim, Brandon Mayfield, charged with involvement in a bombing case in Madrid, Spain. Those charges were withdrawn, the FBI apologized and Mayfield settled the case for $2 million.
The FBI investigations have spurred interfaith outreach efforts by Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders to promote understanding and tolerance.
"These issues brought a lot of people to the forefront to try to understand the Muslim community," said Iman Mikal Shabazz, director of the Oregon Islamic Chaplains Organization.
Shabazz said those efforts will continue. But he noted that Mohamud's arrest and a Sunday arson at a Corvallis mosque where Mohamud sometimes worshipped have created fresh concerns among many area Muslims.
"There is a heightened sense of awareness," Shabazz said. "The biggest concern is for children who need to go to school and women who need to go shopping."
Information from The New York Times is included in this report. Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.