What a beautiful bomb.
That much is certain after FBI undercover agents showed Mohamed O. Mohamud the bomb he wanted to detonate in downtown Portland, Ore.
Six 55-gallon barrels, supposedly filled with diesel fuel and nails (to act as shrapnel) were secured in the back of a van to be parked near Pioneer Courthouse Square.
“It’s beautiful,” Mohamud says, while secretly being recorded on Nov. 26, 2010.
Unbeknownst to him, his friends “Hussein” and “Youssef” who delivered the bomb – made in part with components Mohamud had obtained – were FBI agents. The bomb was a fake.
Several blocks away from Pioneer Courthouse Square, where thousands of people gathered to light Portland’s Christmas tree, Mohamud dialed a cell phone number to detonate the bomb. But there was no explosion. FBI agents swarmed Mohamud and arrested him.
Had Mohamud been able to blow up a public square, the city would probably be wrapping up two years of committee meetings on how to honor the victims of Portland’s terrorist attack.
Since Mohamud’s associates turned out to be FBI undercover agents, no memorial is necessary. Instead, we’ve got a trial.
It’s a beautiful trial.
The setting is in a classic American courtroom, the epitome of majestic mahogany, located inside the dignified U.S. District Courthouse, as quiet as a bank on Sunday. Not a speck of dust or lint anywhere in the expansive hallways.
It’s such a contrast from the notorious images of Somali justice – the mob that dragged two U.S. soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu, detailed in the book “Black Hawk Down” and, in more recent years, the Ethiopian soldiers dragged and paraded before camera phones.
At the first week of Mohamud’s trial outside Courtroom 12-A, two women, their heads and shoulders draped in silky orange and gold veils, sat on a cloth spread on the floor. They looked like they could’ve been Photo-shopped from a street scene in Somalia. The women wore ID badges like the rest of the courtroom visitors, only theirs said “Family.”
Mohamud’s trial is in Courtroom 9-A, but it was sealed during much of the first week to protect the identities of Hussein and Youssef when they testified. Observers had to watch on TV monitors in Courtroom 12A. Of the nine people sitting in a row at the attorneys’ tables, two images stood out on the monitor – the blonde hair of Assistant U.S. Attorney Pamala Holsinger at one end, and the dark brown skin of Mohamud sitting at the other end.
Mohamud’s public defender, Steven Wax, has been given “famed attorney” status by the local media because about eight years ago he had the good fortune of having an honest-to-God innocent client named Brandon Mayfield.
Mohamud’s case is interesting because of its what-ifs and its Oregon connection. A terrorist attack in a major city like New York or Washington, D.C. is one thing. But Oregon? It’s as inexplicable as a terrorist attack in … Oklahoma.
For about three months, Youssef and Hussein got to know Mohamud, then 19 and a student at Oregon State University. He wanted help to “become operational” as a terrorist. He reassured them that law enforcement didn’t pose a problem in Portland.
“They don’t see it as a place where anything will happen. People say you know, why, anybody want to do something in Portland, you know. It’s on the west coast, it’s in Oregon, and Oregon like, you know, nobody ever thinks about it,” Mohamud is quoted as saying in the criminal complaint filed against him.
Mohamud’s parents fled the civil war in Somalia in 1992, a year after he was born. His father settled in Portland with the help of Christian organizations. Mohamud and his mother joined him in 1995.
In an account in The Oregonian shortly after Mohamud’s arrest, former classmates recalled him as everything from a good student to a joker to a drinker and a party boy.
In high school, one memory jumped out: In a physics class, students had to detail the workings of a mechanical device. While other students picked items like staplers, Mohamud outlined the intricacies of a rocket-propelled grenade.
At OSU he was accused of date rape by a student who said she was too drunk to consent. He said it was consensual. Charges were not filed. At about the same time, he came to the attention of the FBI for writings in an online magazine called “Jihad Recollections.”
At one point, Mohamud used the wrong e-mail address to contact someone in Pakistan who could teach him how to be a terrorist. An undercover FBI agent replied.
Mohamud’s attorneys maintain that the young man was entrapped by the agents.
But there’s no question that the bombing target was strictly Mohamud’s: “You guys know Pioneer Square? … It’s like Thanksgiving, you know… . They have a tree lighting … they bring (their) families, you know.”
It’s clear from the recordings that Mohamud feels a kinship with Youssef and Hussein. After preparations to blow up Pioneer Square were well under way, Hussein told Mohamud there would be no shame, no pressure if he wanted to change his mind and not go through with it.
In court, federal prosecutor Holsinger asked Hussein why he said that.
“Shame is such a big word when it comes to African culture, and I wanted him to understand he didn’t have to feel any shame …,” said Hussein. “He could turn around any time and walk out that door… . ‘You are not going to be dishonored.’”
But Mohamud wanted to inflict as much damage as possible. He even researched wireless cameras to place on windshields of cars parked near Pioneer Square, so he could detonate the bomb when a MAX train arrived.
Youssef dismissed that idea and sent him an e-mail (Exhibit No. 196), which included this bit of advice: “Remember to take care of your mother.”
On the witness stand, Youssef explained why: “I was pretty sure he was going to be arrested and … push the button if you will. Hussein and I discussed that he should spend time with his mother.”
I doubt if Mohamud did anything special for his mother. If he fashioned himself a true jihadist, he probably had little use for females aside from whatever services they could provide males.
In his conversations with Hussein and Youssef, Mohamud spoke of his hatred for “this place … the whole lifestyle is sick.”
Perhaps what he really hated was his inability to resist the easily available debauchery here.
What lifestyles are available in Somalia? The summer Mohamud was planning his attack, a Somali insurgent group called Hizbul Islam along with the powerful Islamic insurgent group Al Shabab instituted a ban on brassieres, forcing women to undergo humiliating public inspections.
Wax’s defense may likely turn on Mohamud’s age. A popular criminal defense now is that the human brain under age 25 is not mature (particularly, it would appear, the male brain). With this theory, nothing is completely your fault when you’re under 25.
If the people who have been posting comments on OregonLive.com about Mohamud’s case represent the same cross section of residents that the jury was chosen from, he could likely be convicted – by sympathizers who think the FBI entrapped him.
“Portland being Portland, any chance the jury could at least be hung?” one commenter asked Oregonian reporter Bryan Denson during a Live Chat this week.
“If Mohamud were looking for a jury pool that would keep an open mind about the FBI’s efforts, it would be Portland,” Denson replied.
Portland likes to make up for its mediocrity by being weird for the sake of being weird (and thus appearing to be first at something).
Blaming the FBI for entrapping Mohamud would allow Portlanders to shift blame off of the young Muslim – someone they would normally embrace just to show how accepting they are.
But what if Mohamud had never met Youssef and Hussein? He told them he would have gone overseas to study and try to meet the right people in Saudi Arabia.
Had he done that, he could have returned to Oregon older, and more knowledgeable, in so many ways.
Think what he could have done to the heathens and polytheists of Portland, like the dark-haired young woman I saw at this past year’s Christmas tree lighting and sing-along, serenading a friend in a wheelchair with her own private version of “Feliz Navidad.”
Or the man bent over a little boy, shaking the child’s hand in time with “Frosty the Snowman.”
Just think what a skilled terrorist could’ve done to them.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons