PORTLAND — Some residents of this famously liberal city are unnerved, not only by a plot to bomb an annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony last week but also by the police tactics in the case.
They questioned whether federal agents crossed the line by training 19-year-old Somali-American Mohamed O. Mohamud to blow up a bomb, giving him $3,000 cash to rent an apartment and providing him with a fake bomb.
The FBI affidavit “was a picture painted to make the suspect sound like a dangerous terrorist,” said Portland photographer Rich Burroughs. “I don’t think it’s clear at all that this person would have ever had access to even a fake bomb if not for the FBI.”
Mohamud’s defense lawyer said in court today that agents groomed his client and timed his arrest for publicity’s sake.
Public defender Stephen Sady focused on the FBI’s failed attempt to record a first conversation between Mohamud and an FBI undercover operative. “In the cases involving potential entrapment, it’s the initial meeting that matters,” Sady said.
Attorney General Eric Holder defended the agents today, rejecting entrapment accusations.
Once the undercover operation began, Mohamud, who officials said had no formal ties to foreign terror groups, “chose at every step to continue” with the bombing plot, Holder said.
To be sure, many Portlanders were unsettled that a terror plot could unfold in their backyard — in Pioneer Courthouse Square, as thousands cheered the tree lighting — and not in much higher-profile cities such as New York or Los Angeles.
At a time when people are focused on body scans and intrusive pat-downs to prevent terrorist attacks, some Portlanders wondered if the FBI had gone too far and unnecessarily scared residents.
“What is distressing about the incident is not so much that the FBI arrested or otherwise intervened,” said resident Joe Clement, 24, “but that the FBI used him to create a scenario that scared a lot of people.”
It is not unusual in Portland for actions by federal agents to be met with skepticism and criticism.
Portland was the first city in the nation to pull its officers from the FBI’s terrorism task force in 2005. The move came after the FBI wrongfully arrested a Portland attorney as a suspect in the 2004 Madrid train bombings — a mistake that prompted an FBI apology.
“I don’t think there will be much serious debate as to whether or not (Mohamud) should have been a person worth looking into,” said resident Christopher Frankonis, 41. “Portland being Portland, and Portland being liberal, it will understand and accept” it.
But Portland being what it is, residents will “still want answers to questions about how it all went down,” he said.
The Portland plot was reminiscent of other recent arrests. A 34-year-old Pakistani-American was accused of targeting the Washington, D.C., subway system in October, and authorities say a 19-year-old Jordanian man tried to bring down a Dallas building with a truck bomb in Sept. 2009. In both cases, federal agents had set up elaborate ruses to ensnare the men.
In Mohamud’s case, the FBI set up a sting operation to investigate him after receiving a tip.
Two undercover federal agents led Mohamud to believe he could detonate a bomb with a cell phone, helped him choose an apartment in Portland and instructed him to buy the equipment necessary to trigger the fake device.
Authorities say he parked a van full of explosives near the square on Friday night and was arrested shortly after he dialed a cell phone that he thought would blow up the bomb. He was charged with attempting to detonate a weapon of mass destruction.
Kim Bissett, a former student of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said she moved to Portland because it is a liberal city. She said most of the anger was from the suburbs, not from city residents.
“The angriest people are those from the suburbs, not necessarily Portland, which is very accepting,” Bissett said.
A fire on Sunday destroyed part of the Salman Al-Farisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, a college town about 75 miles southwest of Portland. Mohamud occasionally worshipped at the center while attending Oregon State. No one was injured.
Police believe the fire was intentionally set and increased patrols around mosques and other Islamic sites in Portland.
At a news conference in Washington, Holder also said the FBI was investigating the fire. If the blaze is related to the arrest or to an attack on Islam, it “is something that I personally decry,” Holder said.
“It is not something that is consistent with who we are as Americans,” he said.
While leaders in the Somali community in the U.S. condemned the plot, some, including a friend of Mohamud, were concerned about federal agents possibly luring him into breaking the law.
Mujahid El-Naser, 20, said he didn’t believe Mohamud would have gotten involved in the plot without FBI encouragement. El-Naser, who has played basketball with Mohamud, said he never heard him express extremist views.
“If you talk with someone enough, they’ll be convinced they need to do something,” said El-Naser, who gathered outside the federal court building with a couple of dozen people before a court hearing where Mohamud pleaded not guilty.
Mohamud’s lawyer asked a judge to order the government to preserve whatever devices, storage media or locations might have been used for a July 30 meeting at a downtown Portland hotel.
At the meeting, an FBI affidavit said, Mohamud talked of “putting stuff in a car, parking it by a target, and detonating it.” While the undercover agent was equipped with audio recording equipment, it didn’t work, for reasons the affidavit left unexplained.
Sady said preserving the evidence would allow defense experts to examine it, and Judge John Acosta granted the request.
A defense of entrapment must prove that the government planted the idea of a criminal act in an innocent person’s mind and brought about the crime so the government could prosecute it.
Key to the defense is showing the defendant wasn’t predisposed to act criminally before the government got involved.
In this case, the FBI affidavit said it was Mohamud who picked the target of the bomb plot, that he was warned several times about the seriousness of his plan, that women and children could die, and that he could back out.
Mohamud “was told that children — children — were potentially going to be harmed,” Holder added.
Authorities said they allowed the plot to continue so they could gather enough evidence to charge him with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Portland Mayor Sam Adams said he will review the city’s decision to remove itself from the Justice Department’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a cooperative among state, local and federal law enforcement.
“We have a new federal administration,” he said. “There have been changes to federal practices and federal laws.”
Mohamud was investigated for rape in 2009 but never charged. The Benton County District Attorney’s Office didn’t find a reason to charge Mohamud with a crime after a woman whose name was redacted in the documents filed a sexual assault complaint.
Mohamud had sex with the woman in an Oregon State dorm room on Oct. 31, 2009. He said in the documents that he and the woman were “a little tipsy” when they left a fraternity party and returned to his dorm room.
Tests on the woman failed to show any controlled substances or common pharmaceuticals in her body.
Mohamud’s attorney, Steven Wax, could not immediately be reached for comment.