Portland Christmas tree bomber gets 30 years as questions about arrest linger

The case of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who attempted to detonate a fake bomb at a Portland Christmas tree lighting ceremony four years ago, comes as domestic terrorism appears to be shifting. The sort of FBI sting that snared him, however, will continue.

Multnomah County Sheriff's Office/AP/File
This file photo shows Mohamed Mohamud after he was arrested on suspicion of attempting to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore., in 2010. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison Wednesday.

The sentencing of a Somali-American man in Oregon on Tuesday to 30 years in prison for trying to blow up a 2010 Christmas tree lighting celebration comes at a potential pivot point in the nature of American extremism.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized US citizen, was arrested for what prosecutors say was an attempt to remotely detonate a car bomb with his cell phone. The bomb, however, was a fake. He got it from undercover FBI agents posing as members of Al Qaeda. Nobody was injured or endangered. But prosecutors argued he "believed he was going to maim and kill thousands by detonating a bomb."

The case was emblematic of a number of post-9/11 "lone wolf" jihadi plots in which radicalized Muslims sought to strike the American homeland. While that threat still exists, the focus of Islamist sympathizers is beginning to shift to fighting abroad.

"Terrorism cases of the future look very much like they're going to be focused on individuals who want to go fight for ISIS," says Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University in New York, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State.

An estimated 2,000 of the Islamic State's 20,000 to 31,500 fighters come from Western countries, according to CNN, citing officials from the CIA.

Yet the Oregon case remains poignant, Professor Greenberg and others add, because of the way Mr. Mohamud was caught. At the time, the case caused controversy for what critics said was entrapment by law enforcement of a suspect who had not actually committed an act of terrorism.

This kind of preemptive counterterrorism involving informants or undercover officers became a staple of American law enforcement after 9/11 as authorities sought to catch terrorists before they acted. Since 9/11, 27 percent of terrorism cases have qualified as sting operations, according to the Center on National Security.

"The defendants in these plots, most of them male Muslim immigrants with no history of terrorism or violence, have become unwitting actors in a disturbing theatrical performance: The FBI scripts the plot and provides the weapons, along with money, cars and any other logistical support needed to carry out the 'attack,' " Petra Bartosiewicz, author of the forthcoming book "The Best Terrorists We Could Find," wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2011.

Sting operations will likely continue as a preventive measure, says Greenberg. Regardless of whether they actually prevent terrorism, sting operations send a message that any trace of possible terrorist activity is unacceptable. "The message has been loud and clear: Don't do it," she says. 

But she questions the effectiveness of convicting targets who could have benefited from intervention, not arrest. Mohamud, for example, was 19 when he was arrested and had signs of a troubled past, including being previously investigated for an alleged date rape by the Oregon State Police.

"If you're going to get somebody that young, then why not do an intervention instead of a sting?" Greenberg asks. "Why not turn somebody toward a more constructive avenue?"

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