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Oregon Christmas tree bomber guilty on WMD charges

Mohamed Osman Mohamud

The man who tried to detonate a vehicle bomb during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony on the busy streets of one of Oregon’s biggest cities in 2010 was convicted on weapons of mass destruction charges by a federal jury on Jan. 31.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 21, was convicted after a 14-day trial for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in his plot to attack the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland.

He faces a maximum statutory life term in prison at sentencing.

A native of Somalia, but a naturalized U.S. citizen, Mohamud was arrested on Nov. 26, 2010, after he tried to detonate what he thought were 1,800 lbs of explosives in a van parked near the tree lighting ceremony as crowds of people, including young children, gathered.  The bomb was a fake and posed no danger, however. It was planted by undercover agents working a long-term operation that had monitored Mohamud closely for months as his plot developed. 

“This trial provided a rare glimpse into the techniques Al Qaeda employs to radicalize home-grown extremists,” said Amanda Marshall, U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon in a Jan. 31 statement. 

According to court documents, Mohamud was radicalized by the infamous Samir Khan, the now-deceased al Qaeda terrorist who published Jihad Recollections, an online magazine advocating violent jihad, and Inspire, the official magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Between February and August 2009, federal authorities said Mohamed exchanged approximately 150 emails with Khan and wrote several articles for Jihad Recollections published under assumed names.

In August 2009, according to trial evidence, Mohamud was also in email contact with Amro Al-Ali, a Saudi national living in Yemen at the time, but now in a Saudi Arabian jail on terrorism offenses. Al-Ali tried to get Mohamud to travel to Yemen to train for violent jihad.  In December 2009, while Al-Ali was in the northwest frontier province of Pakistan, Mohamud and Al-Ali discussed the possibility of Mohamud traveling to Pakistan to join Al-Ali in terrorist activities. Mohamud responded to Al-Ali in an email: “yes, that would be wonderful, just tell me what I need to do.”  Al-Ali referred Mohamud to another associate overseas and provided Mohamud with a name and email address to facilitate the process.

 In the following months, Mohamud made several unsuccessful attempts to contact Al-Ali’s associate. 

That’s where the FBI stepped in. Trial evidence showed that an FBI undercover operative emailed Mohamud under the guise of being an associate of Al-Ali’s. Mohamud and the FBI operative agreed to meet in Portland in July 2010.  At the meeting, Mohamud told the FBI undercover operative he had written articles published in Jihad Recollections and wanted to become “operational.” Asked what he meant by “operational,” Mohamud said he wanted to put an explosion together, but needed help.

According to trial evidence, at a August, 2010 meeting, Mohamud told undercover FBI operatives he had been thinking of committing violent jihad since the age of 15.  Mohamud then told the undercover FBI operatives he had identified a potential target for a bomb: the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square on Nov. 26, 2010.  The undercover FBI operatives cautioned Mohamud several times about the seriousness of this plan, noting there would be many people at the event, including children, and emphasized that Mohamud could abandon his attack plans at any time with no shame.  Mohamud indicated the deaths would be justified and that he would not mind carrying out a suicide attack on the crowd.

According to evidence presented at trial, in the ensuing months Mohamud continued to express his interest in carrying out the attack and worked on logistics.  On Nov. 4, 2010, Mohamud and the undercover FBI operatives traveled to a remote location in Lincoln County, OR, where they detonated a bomb hidden in a backpack as a trial run for the upcoming attack.  During the drive back to Corvallis, Mohamud was asked if he was capable of looking at all the bodies of those who would be killed during the explosion.  In response, Mohamud noted, “I want whoever is attending that event to be, to leave either dead or injured.” Mohamud later recorded a video of himself, with the assistance of the undercover FBI operatives, in which he read a statement that offered his rationale for his bomb attack.

On Nov. 18, 2010, undercover FBI operatives picked up Mohamud to travel to Portland to finalize the details of the attack.  On Nov. 26, 2010, just hours before the planned attack, Mohamud examined the 1,800 pound bomb in the van and remarked that it was “beautiful.”  Mohamud was arrested later that day after he tried to remotely detonate the inert vehicle bomb parked near the ceremony.

In a statement issued after the verdict was reached, FBI Portland special agent in charge Greg Fowler said the case was difficult because it had to balance the rights of an individual against the greater good.

“Mr. Mohamud made a series of choices over a period of several years—choices that were leading him down a path that would have ended in violence. His actions showed little regard for the rights and responsibilities that come with being an American or respect for the lives that he was prepared to take,” said Fowler.

“Indeed, in this country everyone has a right to live, work and worship freely and without fear. FBI employees—in Oregon and around the world—find strength in preserving and protecting these core values,” he said.

“I would like to thank the jurors for their service. I know that they carried a heavy burden—deciding the fate of a young man while balancing the needs for safety and justice. We greatly appreciate their service to their country,” he said.