Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday dismissed questions that FBI agents may have used illegal entrapment to build its case against a Somali-American teenager accused of plotting to detonate a car bomb at a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore., last Friday.
In comments to reporters, the attorney general said he’d been monitoring the investigation from the start. “I am confident that there is no entrapment here and no entrapment claim will be found to be successful,” he said.
The comments came as 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud of Corvallis, Ore., made his first appearance in federal court in Portland. He pleaded not guilty to a grand jury indictment returned earlier Monday.
The one-count indictment charges Mr. Mohamud with knowingly attempting to use a “weapon of mass destruction” against targets within the US. The charge carries a potential life sentence.
The indictment stems from a 15-month undercover investigation in which federal agents posed as Islamic militants willing to conduct indiscriminate terror attacks within the US.
Under surveillance since 2009
According to court documents, the surveillance began in August 2009. Federal agents had apparently identified Mohamud as a potential Al Qaeda recruit by monitoring e-mail between Mohamud and an unidentified individual in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkwa Province, previously known as the Northwest Frontier Province.
The contact in Pakistan suggested that Mohamud get in touch with a second militant. Mohamud used the wrong e-mail address when trying to contact the second militant but was apparently unaware of his mistake. That allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to contact Mohamud, posing as that second Al Qaeda operative – pretending the failed e-mail had reached its recipient.
Between July 2010 and Nov. 26, the undercover agents met eight times with Mohamud to plan a car bomb attack in downtown Portland.
In an apparent effort to address potential concerns about entrapment, an undercover agent asked Mohamud what he was willing to do for the Islamic cause. According to court documents, the agent offered five options from praying five times a day, to raising money, to carrying out a suicide mission.
Mohamud told the undercover agent that he wanted to become “operational.” But he added that he did not know how and would need training.
All eight of the undercover meetings were recorded and/or videotaped. But, according to court documents, the audio recorder malfunctioned during that first meeting.
To defeat an entrapment claim, prosecutors must be able to show that Mohamud was willing to engage in the illegal conduct without the support and encouragement of the undercover agents.
An agent repeatedly asked Mohamud what he thought about the unfolding bomb plot and what was in his heart. The agent stressed that there would be children at the bomb site.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” Mohamud is quoted in court documents as telling the agent.
“For kids?” the agent asked.
“Just a huge mass … to be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays,” he answered.
A second undercover agent told Mohamud that he “loved his idea” of bombing the Christmas tree ceremony.
At one point Mohamud told the agents he was not worried about looking at the carnage after the blast. “Do you remember when 9/11 happened when those people were jumping from skyscrapers.… I thought that was awesome,” the teen told the agents, according to court documents.
He added: “I want whoever is attending that [Christmas tree] event to leave … either dead or injured.”
Feds close in
In addition to discussing the plot, the agents directed Mohamud to purchase what they said would be components of the bomb. He spent roughly $110 of FBI money at a Radio Shack.
Mohamud was also given $2,700 to rent an apartment to assist in his escape from the US after the bombing.
The agents also arranged for Mohamud to engage in a dry run on detonation of the bomb. They took him to a remote location and told him to dial a cell phone number. Explosive experts staged an explosion to give Mohamud the feeling that he could actually detonate the car bomb.
Agents carried the plot all the way to streets of Portland with a fake bomb in a van, parked at a location selected by Mohamud. After he used the cell phone to attempt to detonate what he believed was a bomb, agents placed him under arrest.
Attorney General Holder said Mohamud revealed his state of mind when he was told that children would be among the victims. “You saw his response,” Holder said.
Holder defended the undercover operation. “These investigations are extremely important,” he said. “It is part of a forward-leaning way in which the Justice Department, the FBI, our law enforcement partners at the state and local level are trying to find people who are bound and determined to harm Americans and American interests around the world.”