The Foiled Portland Bombing Plot

5 MINS READDec 1, 2010 | 13:19 GMT
Mohamed Osman Mohamud pleaded not guilty on Nov. 29 to charges that he attempted to detonate a weapon of mass destruction in downtown Portland, Oregon, on Nov. 26. Authorities arrested Mohamud while he was trying to detonate an inert improvised explosive device provided to him by federal authorities in a sting operation. Though Mohamud lacked the skill to construct and deploy an explosive device, he demonstrated the intent and thus the threat that such grassroots militants continue to pose.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somali-American, pleaded not guilty in a Portland, Oregon, federal courthouse on Nov. 29 to the charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction within the United States. Mohamud, arrested after a five-month-long FBI investigation, is accused of attempting to detonate an explosive device at the Nov. 26 annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. Mohamed Osman Mohamud Mohamud is another case in what is becoming a long list of grassroots jihadists arrested in the United States before carrying out a successful attack, many of whom were arrested after a sting operation organized by the FBI. Unlike his predecessors, Mohamud attempted to target a popular area with less security presence and monitoring than New York or Washington. The FBI's success in disrupting these plots also demonstrates its ability to monitor and intercept jihadists. Mohamud was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and moved to the United States in 1996, residing in the Portland area until attending Oregon State University in Corvallis. Authorities said he had been in e-mail contact with an individual based in the Pakistani tribal region beginning August 2009 and that he tried in 2010 to contact a second source to plan a trip to the Pakistani tribal area, presumably for militant training. However, Mohamud sent an e-mail to the wrong address and thus failed to contact the second individual. According to media reports, the FBI became aware of Mohamud in June 2010 after a member of his family contacted authorities with concerns over his growing radicalization. The FBI discovered Mohamud's previous foreign communication, likely through warrants to investigate his records, and contacted him claiming to be an associate of Mohamud's previous foreign contacts. Mohamud responded, met multiple times with undercover federal agents and stated his desire to become operational. The criminal complaint states the agents directed Mohamud to buy components to build an explosive device and find a suitable target. After federal agents prepared an explosive device from components provided by Mohamud, they traveled to a remote location to do a trial run of the attack on Nov. 4. Then, on Nov. 26, Mohamud and an undercover federal agent drove into downtown Portland in a white van loaded with six 55-gallon drums filled with inert detonation cords and plastic caps. The van was parked in the location Mohamud had indicated would provide the greatest lethality. At around 5:40 p.m. Mohamud dialed the cellular phone he was given to detonate the device, and when nothing happened, he tried to call again. At this point, federal agents and police swarmed Mohamud's position and arrested him. During this sting operation, federal agents likely maintained surveillance on Mohamud, both through technical and human means. There would have been considerable concern by investigators that Mohamud could have gone operational outside the sting operation or regained contact with his Pakistani sources, possibly even leaving the country. Mohamud's case is similar to other would-be grassroots jihadists who have attempted to carry out an attack within the United States. Although Mohamud had the intent to stage the attack, his inability to construct the device led him to reach out for assistance. This is similar to the Newburgh cell, Michael Finton and Hosam Smadi, who opened themselves up to federal authorities when they reached out to others for explosive material. Mohamud's intended weapon — a large vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) — also mirrors that of the Newburgh cell, as well as Faizal Shahzad in his May 2010 attempt to bomb Times Square in New York. Both Mohamud and Shahzad targeted tourist sites that would attract a large crowd, and both tried to place their VBIEDs strategically to kill as many people as possible. Mohamud also had Pakistani connections like Shahzad did, but he was unable to travel to South Asia. Mohamud was unique in that he chose Portland, Oregon, as his intended target. He thought he would raise less law enforcement interest there, quoted in the criminal compliant as saying, "It's in Oregon ... nobody ever thinks of it." He had hoped to attack an even softer target with even less security presence than most of these other examples. Mohamud operated with the same type of skill that has been seen in these other cases, and his lack of bomb-making skill opened him up to law enforcement infiltration. If he had the ability to construct his own explosive device or was able to travel for training, the ability of law enforcement to infiltrate his plot may have been limited. In this and the Newburgh cell case, the FBI has demonstrated its ability to infiltrate operations of plotters with the intent to carry out grassroots attacks inside the United States. Mohamud's lawyer and some pundits have criticized the FBI, claiming these are cases of entrapment. Like those before him, Mohamud chose his own target and was not under orders by the FBI undercover agents, rather only receiving what he thought was bomb-making assistance. Since this skill set is what grassroots jihadists lack, it provides an opportunity for the FBI to prevent them from receiving training elsewhere — like Shahzad in Pakistan — and successfully carrying out an attack.

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