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Saturday, November 27, 2010

FBI Sting: Man Arrested in Plot to Blow Up Pioneer Square

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Sat, Nov 27, 2010 at 9:40 AM

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A Corvallis man who parked what he believed was a van full of explosives outside Pioneer Courthouse Square—with a plan to blow the place sky high during the city's people-packed annual tree lighting ceremony—was arrested by federal and local authorities last night just before the event was scheduled to begin.

Authorities say no one was actually in danger, because the purported explosives in the van were inert. Nineteen-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested after authorities said he tried to remotely detonate the contents of the van, parked at SW Sixth and Yamhill. Mohamud is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia who attends took classes at Oregon State University.

(Update: The Corvallis Gazette-Times says Mohamud was "studying 'non-degree pre-engineering,' according to a university source and a listing in OSU’s student directory." Update 1:14 pm: The university sent out a clarification: Mohamud dropped all his classes in October.)

Mohamud's arrest—about 20 minutes before the ceremony was supposed to start—followed months of an undercover, sting-type investigation by the FBI in which agents led Mohamud to believe they were helping him plan a terrorist attack. The FBI began the sting, according to the affidavit filed with the arrest, after Mohamud was held off a plane to Alaska in June and told agents in an official interview that he had hoped to fly to Yemen and was in contact with someone the FBI believed was involved in terrorism.

Earlier this year, the FBI used the same tactics to arrest a man who allegedly wanted to blow up Washington, DC's subway system.

"A smart federal, state and local law enforcement investigation caught a criminal tonight bent on mass destruction and murder in our city," Mayor Sam Adams said in a statement. "The bomb was a fake but the criminal who tried to detonate it was real."

A statement from the FBI's top agent in Oregon, Arthur Balizan: “The threat was very real. Our investigation shows that Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale. 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.”

Mohamud will appear in federal court Monday. He is being held on a felony charge of of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, authorities say. He could face life in prison and a $250,000 fine. Other coverage of the thwarted bombing is here, here, and here.

Click past the jump to read more about how the plot unfolded.

The justice department's timeline starts in August 2009. That's when Mohamud allegedly struck up an e-mail correspondence with someone in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province—reputed home base of Al-Qaeda— who was "believed to be involved in terrorist activities." A few months later, in December, Mohamud was asked if he wanted to travel to Pakistan and was given another name and e-mail address.

For most of 2010, authorities say, Mohamud struggled to contact the second operative, because he was using an incorrect e-mail address. Mohamud was held off the flight to Alaska and talked to authorities in mid-June. In late June, an undercover FBI stepped in and pretended to be an associate of the first operative—using an e-mail address similar to the one Mohamud thought he was supposed to be using.

Starting in July, Mohamud met and corresponded frequently with undercover agents to talk about planning an attack, revealing that he'd been considering a jihadi attack since he was 15 years old. They also, according to the affidavit discussed equipment, martyrdom, how Mohamud might escape the country afterward, and whether he was committed to the attack.

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From the Justice Department's statement:

According to the affidavit, the undercover FBI operatives cautioned Mohamud several times about the seriousness of this plan, noting there would be many people at the event, including many children, and emphasized that Mohamud could abandon his attack plans at any time with no shame. “You know there’s gonna be a lot of children there?” an undercover FBI operative asked Mohamud. According to the affidavit, Mohamud responded that he was looking for a “huge mass that will . . . be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays.” Further discussing the attack, Mohamud allegedly stated, “...it’s in Oregon; and Oregon like you know, nobody ever thinks about it.”

Mohamud mailed bomb components to his handlers and also took scouting photographs of Pioneer Courthouse Square, looking for ideal places to park, including backups in case his first choice was taken, as well as escape routes. At one point agents—painstakingly stage-managing the whole thing—led him to believe he had detonated a practice bomb in rural Oregon.

Just more than a week ago, the agents and Mohamud actually visited Pioneer Courthouse Square and talked more about where to put the van. One spot, possibly in front of the Swatch store on Morrison, was discounted because it wouldn't do as much harm. Mohamud instead liked a spot near where MAX would approach.

Last night, the plan was put in place. And Mohamud was arrested near Union Station.

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