Mohamed Osman Mohamud: The Somali teen who wanted to bomb Portland

Authorities say Mohamed Osman Mohamud acted alone in trying to bomb a Christmas tree lighting event in Portland, Ore. Details about the Somali-born teen’s life are now emerging.

By , Staff writer

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    A day after the attempted car-bombing of a city-wide Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Ore., workers dissassemble staging and families visit the iconic tree.
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[UPDATE: The Associated Press reported Sunday that an arson fire had occurred at the Salman Al-Farisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, Ore., the occasional place of worship of Mohamed Osman Mohamud. The fire on Sunday was contained to one room, burning 80 percent of the center's office, the AP reported. The worship areas were untouched, and no injuries were reported.]

Friends and neighbors called him “Mo.” He thought of himself as a rapper. After high school, he signed up for classes at Oregon State University in Corvallis (although not for credit), dropped out, then started classes again. He was a Muslim, although not particularly religious.

From all appearances, Mohamed Osman Mohamud – born in Mogadishu, Somalia, but brought to the United States when he was 5 years old – was a typical teenager in Beaverton, Ore., near Portland.

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But when the slim young man was wrestled into a van by FBI and other law enforcement officers – shouting “Allahu Akhbar” as he kicked at the agents who’d arrested him – it was clear he was not.

IN PICTURES: American Jihadis

A few minutes earlier, Mr. Mohamud thought he was about to explode a bomb in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square – he’d picked the site himself for what he assumed would be “a spectacular show” – where thousands of families had gathered for the traditional Christmas tree lighting.

Working with men he believed were associates in his terrorist plot, he had said earlier: “I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured.” He seemed giddy with excitement as he punched the buttons on a cellphone he thought would detonate a van packed with explosives.

Mohamud was arrested Friday night, and he’s due to appear in federal court in Portland Monday to face charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

The 38-page government affidavit details a plot that began in August 2009.

Although Mohamud made initial e-mail contact with an “unindicted associate” in the northwest frontier province of Pakistan, that never went anywhere. Instead, it became an undercover operation with FBI agents – who’d been tipped off to the young man’s intentions – posing as individuals who could help him follow through on his stated desire to wage violent jihad by becoming “operational.”

Over the next several months, the undercover agents developed a relationship with Mohamud – careful to avoid anything that might later suggest that he’d been the victim of entrapment. He mentioned how he’d been thinking of committing some form of violent jihad since he was 15 years old.

He sent them parts for a detonating device – mainly from Radio Shack – and plans for the attack site and the means for avoiding capture. Once, he went to a remote site with the undercover agents to detonate a test bomb in a backpack.

At several points, the agents (wearing recording devices) pressed Mohamud on his intentions and willingness to engage in what could be the slaughter of many people, including children, at the Christmas tree event.

“You know there’s gonna be a lot of children there?” an undercover FBI operative asked Mohamud. According to the affidavit, Mohamud responded that he was looking for 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.”

As the crowd gathered for the holiday tree lighting, a white van was parked for maximum impact, including a nearby light rail station. As Mohamud looked over the bomb, he pronounced it “beautiful.”

What he didn’t know was that it was not a real bomb at all. According to the government affidavit, “It consisted of six 55 gallon drums containing inert material, inert detonation cord, inert blasting caps and approximately one gallon of diesel fuel, which gave off a strong odor.”

Within a few minutes, Mohamed Osman Mohamud was under arrest, facing a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

“The threat was very real. Our investigation shows that Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale,” said Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon, in a statement Friday night.

Said Dwight Holton, US attorney for the District of Oregon: “This defendant’s chilling determination is a stark reminder that there are people – even here in Oregon – who are determined to kill Americans.”

IN PICTURES: American Jihadis

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