Portlanders condemn bomb plot, criticize FBI probe

Steven T. Wax, right, federal public defender and Stephen R. Sady, the chief deputy public defender, speak to reporters following an appearance in federal court by terror suspect Mohamed Osman Mohamud on Monday, Nov. 29, 2010, in Portland, Ore. Authorities say Mohamud and an FBI operative parked a van full of dummy explosives on Southwest Yamhill Street across from Pioneer Courthouse Square just after sundown Friday while thousands gathered in the square for the annual tree lighting. Mohamud is accused of attempting to detonate the explosives.

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 on Monday 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 on Monday, 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 Monday editorial by the city’s major newspaper, The Oregonian, expressed gratitude toward federal agents, saying it was “enormously comforting” that they had Mohamud “well in hand for the past five months, stringing him along as he plotted to kill as many people as he could in Pioneer Courthouse Square.”

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.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.