If 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud was “ absolutely committed” to detonating a van full of explosives at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in downtown Portland this weekend, he sure did put up a good front in the quiet college town where he studied engineering, say friends and fellow Muslims at the mosque where he sometimes worshipped.
The Somalia-born teenager lived a typical student life, said Mona Aly Hassanein, an alum of the school who's now teaching English in Egypt, via a Skype interview with The Daily Beast. He was funny, a good conversationalist, a clown. He was known as “Mo.” And he never let on that he hated America.
“He never once said anything like that,” Hassanein said. “Ever.”
But federal authorities who arrested Mohamud Friday night after a months-long sting operation painted a very different picture of the on-again, off-again engineering student and naturalized U.S. citizen. They describe a young man determined to kill his fellow countrymen by the thousands, specifically targeting the tree-lighting ceremony because there would be young children present. He was looking for a “huge mass that will ... be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays,” according to an FBI affidavit obtained by The Daily Beast on Saturday.
What has the small Islamic community in Corvallis shocked is the question of how and where Mohamud could have developed that kind of twisted intent. He came to America with his family at age 5, said Yosof Wanly, the imam at the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center, the local mosque the young man attended occasionally. The boy’s father brought him and his family to Corvallis for better schools and a better way of life. After graduating from Westview High School in Beaverton, Mohamud enrolled at Oregon State University in the fall of 2009 as a “non degree-seeking student” with an interest in studying engineering, said Todd Simmons, a spokesman for the school. That meant he could attend classes but was not formally admitted to the university.
After two quarters, Mohamud dropped out, then re-enrolled again this fall before again halting his studies on October 6.
Because of his sporadic presence at the school, “We don’t know that much about him,” Simmons said. Neither did the leader of Corvallis’ only mosque. Wanly said he saw Mohamud only once or twice a month at the center, and that from the young man’s appearance and from what his friends told the imam, Mohamud didn’t seem to take the faith all that seriously, ignoring its rules about premarital sex, drug, and alcohol use. “He wasn’t very devout,” Wanly said.
What has the small Islamic community in Corvallis shocked is the question of how and where Mohamud could have developed that kind of twisted intent.
That’s a part of why Wanly and fellow Muslims at the center are concerned about the inevitable links people will draw between the crimes of which Mohamud is accused and his expressed faith. The case is sure to only broaden fears about terrorism’s reach, given that Oregon would otherwise seem an unlikely target for an attack.
• Christopher Dickey: A Win for the FBI“It hurts us very badly.” Wanly said. “People already think Islam and America are mutually exclusive. But it’s less than 1 percent of Muslims who are getting all the attention.”
Mohamud first drew the attention of federal counterterrorism agents back in August 2009, shortly before he started attending classes in Corvallis. Acting on a tip from someone who knew Mohamud in Portland, authorities discovered an email exchange between the teenager and a man from Pakistan believed to be involved in terrorist activities there.
The two discussed the prospect of Mohamud traveling to Pakistan to engage in violent jihad, according to the FBI affidavit, and the foreigner provided the teenager with an email address of another Pakistani operative, “abdulhadi,” to get that ball rolling.
Mohamud tried several times to email the second Pakistani contact. “How are yo (sic) brother abdulhadi,” the teenager wrote. “I was referred to you by a friend plz get back to me as soon as possible.”
But Mohamud had confused the email address he was given with the password for the account, according to the FBI, whose agents decided in June to pretend to be that contact and reply to Mohamud’s overtures.
At one point, Mohamud wrote that he had been “betrayed by my family” and that it had somehow thwarted his attempt to go overseas. He was also suspicious of the agent, asking for proof that he knew the first email contact, but the undercover cop was able to convince Muhamud he was a legitimate associate.
The agent met with Mohamud the following month, at which time the teenager let on that he’d written articles published in Jihad Recollections, an online magazine that advocated violent jihad. One of the articles, “Getting in Shape Without Weights,” was about preparing for violent jihad and training “in order to damage the enemies of Allah as much as possible.” He related a dream he had, wherein he traveled to Yemen for terrorist training, and then led an army against the infidels in Afghanistan. The agent asked Mohamud what he was willing to do for the cause, and the teenager had several ideas, among them to get an engineering degree so he could “help the brothers” overseas. He also said he could become “operational,” and expressed a willingness to be a martyr.
“Mohamud said he wanted to put an explosion together and went on to say he has heard of brothers putting stuff in a car, parking it by a target, and detonating it,” according to the affidavit.
The FBI pretended to help. At a subsequent meeting in August, Mohamud told the undercover agents he has wanted to commit jihad since he was 15, and that he’d identified a worthy target for a bomb: the Christmas Tree-lighting ceremony in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square.
“You know the streets are packed,” Mohamud told the men he thought to be his co-conspirators, assuring them there was little vigilance here of terrorism. “It’s in Oregon like you know, nobody ever thinks about it.”
Mohamud said he’d been thinking of plotting terrorism since at least the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, and that because he had been a rapper, he thought he could acquire a pistol or even an AK47. He said he’d smile at the sight of dead Americans.
“You know, you know what I like, what makes me happy ... is when I see the enemy of Allah then you know their bodies are torn everywhere,” Mohamud said. The agents spent the next several months helping Muhamud plan a terrorist attack. He bought various bomb components and mailed them to undercover operatives. He mailed them passport photos, as part of a plan to sneak him out of the country after the attack, under the name “Beau Coleman.” He provided a thumb drive with detailed directions to Pioneer Square, and an operations guideline for carrying out the attack.
“It’s gonna be a fireworks show,” he had emailed earlier. “A spectacular show... New York Times will give it two thumbs up.”
Muhamud even went on a dry run. On November 4, he and the FBI agents went to a remote locale in nearby Lincoln County, Oregon, and detonated a bomb in a backpack. On the drive back to Corvallis, the agents quizzed Muhamud about whether he’d be able to look at the bodies of those he was planning to kill the day after Thanksgiving.
“Do you remember when 9/11 happened when those people were jumping from skyscrapers ... I thought that was awesome,” Muhamud replied. “I want to see that, that’s what I want for these people. I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured.”
The plan the agents hatched with Muhamud was to fill a van with enough explosives to level two city blocks and park it near the courthouse square, where as many as 25,000 people were expected to show up for the lighting ceremony.
When he saw the six 55-gallon drums with fake explosives in them, along with a harmless detonation cord and inert blasting caps, Muhamud used one word to describe it: “beautiful.”
Then at 4:45 p.m. on Friday night, he and one of the agents drove the van to the parking spot Muhamud figured would inflict the most casualties. The pair parked the van, and as far as Muhamud knew, armed the bomb, attaching a blasting cap, turning on the phone he’d use as a detonator and flipping a toggle switch on the bomb itself. They dressed in hard hats, safety glasses, and reflective vests, so they could pose as “public works” employees. They then traveled to a rendezvous point away from the van and Muhamud tried to detonate the bomb twice, before agents arrested him, violently kicking and yelling “Allahu Akhbar.”
News of her friend’s arrest came as a shock to Hassanein, who talked with him frequently about normal stuff: school, friends, girls, hip-hop music.
“When you’re a Muslim living in Corvallis, you stick out. The Arab community is very close with each other,” she said. “I could never, ever see him as being somebody to ever do that. He was kind of a clown.”
Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com.