PORTLAND, ORE. - A Somali-born teenager plotted "a spectacular show" of terrorism for months, saying he didn't mind that children would die if he bombed a crowded Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, according to a law enforcement official and court documents.
He never got the chance. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, was arrested Friday in downtown Portland after using a cell phone to try to detonate what he thought were explosives in a van, prosecutors said. It turned out to be a dummy bomb put together by FBI agents.
It is the latest in a string of alleged terrorist plots by U.S. citizens or residents, joining one earlier in the year in Times Square and one uncovered last month in the Washington, D.C., area.
Portland's Somali community was "in shock and ... having a hard time processing what happened," said Bashir Warsame, a leader there. We "are peaceful people and do not support terrorism in any way," he said.
He said he knows Mohamud's family in Portland and considers them "decent and respected folks."
Members of Minnesota's large Somali community expressed dismay and discouragement that a Somali-American might have been part of a plot to kill other Americans. "This does not in any way, shape or form reflect the community," said local activist Omar Jamal, who said he had talked to Portland Somali-Americans who told him that Mohamud's stepmother lives in Minneapolis. "This is isolated and a very serious crime. Hopefully, law enforcement agents will use this energy to establish a working relationship with the community to prevent such crimes in the future."
Mohamud believed he was receiving help from a larger ring of jihadists as he communicated with undercover federal agents, but no foreign terrorist organization was directing him, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave dead or injured," Mohamud said, according to the affidavit.
"It's in Oregon, and Oregon, like you know, nobody ever thinks about it," the suspect told an agent in one discussion.
Thousands of people had gathered on Friday for the annual event at Pioneer Courthouse Square, a plaza often referred to as "Portland's living room." The tree lighting went off without a hitch just as the arrest was taking place.
'He was pretty nice'
Mohamud graduated from high school in Beaverton, Ore., and attended Oregon State University in Corvallis, authorities said.
Brandon Guffey played basketball with Mohamud during lunch at Jackson Middle School and Wilson High School, the Oregonian newspaper reported. "He didn't talk a whole lot, but whenever he did, he was pretty nice," Guffey said.
He was known as one of "the three Mohameds" in a group of friends who shared that first name and Islamic religious beliefs. "It wasn't something they ever made a big deal of," Guffey said. "They never tried to argue with anyone about it."
FBI saw opportunity
The FBI said it had received a tip from a Portland Muslim concerned about Mohamud's increasing radicalism, according to a federal law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In an e-mail exchange with an undercover agent, Mohamud complained, "I have been betrayed by my family," although he describes no specific action that family members took.
The FBI monitored Mohamud's e-mail and found that he was in contact with people overseas, asking how he could travel to Pakistan and join the fight for jihad, according to an FBI affidavit.
According to a law enforcement official, Mohamud e-mailed a friend living in Pakistan who had been a student in Oregon in 2007 and 2008 and had been in Yemen as well.
On June 23, an undercover agent contacted Mohamud by e-mail, pretending to be affiliated with the "unindicted associate" Mohamud had e-mailed.
The FBI's affidavit says the friend in Pakistan referred him to another associate, but gave him an e-mail address that Mohamud tried repeatedly to use unsuccessfully. The official said FBI agents saw that as an opportunity and e-mailed Mohamud in response, claiming to be associates of his friend, the former student.
The affidavit said Mohamud was warned several times about the seriousness of his plan, that women and children could be killed and that he could back out. But he told agents: "Since I was 15 I thought about all this" and "It's gonna be a fireworks show ... a spectacular show."
As he was taken into custody, he kicked and screamed at FBI agents and yelled, "Allahu Akbar," an Arabic phrase for "God is Great," the authorities said.
Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Corvallis, was charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. A court appearance was set for Monday.
Authorities allowed the plot to proceed in order to build up enough evidence. Mohamud sent bomb components to undercover FBI agents who he believed were assembling the explosive device, but the agents supplied the fake bomb that Mohamud tried to detonate twice via his phone, authorities said.
"Our investigation shows that Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale," said Arthur Balizan, the FBI's special agent in charge in Oregon. "At the same time, I want to reassure the people of this community that, at every turn, we denied him the ability to actually carry out the attack."
Staff writers Abby Simons and Richard Meryhew and the New York Times contributed to this report.