FBI Thwarts Its Own Plot in Portland

A Muslim teen (Mohamed Osman Mohamud) allegedly attempted to set off a bomb at a Portland tree-lighting ceremony, but the FBI was able to thwart the alleged attack according to the affidavit filed:

“The FBI thwarted an attempted terrorist bombing in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square before the city’s annual tree-lighting Friday night, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon.

“A Corvallis man, thinking he was going to ignite a bomb, drove a van to the corner of the square at Southwest Yamhill Street and Sixth Avenue and attempted to detonate it.

“However, the supposed explosive was a dummy that FBI operatives supplied to him, according to an affidavit in support of a criminal complaint signed Friday night by U.S. Magistrate Judge John V. Acosta.”

The information provided to the public about the case by the authorities alleges that the suspect was very serious about committing a bombing. But because of the FBI’s involvement in this alleged plot in particular – and in many such plots in general – there are serious issues that need to be addressed.

So, let’s walk through this latest case based on what we know thus far:

1. The suspect makes contact with an associate in Pakistan about going abroad to join in a jihad:

“According to the FBI affidavit, the case began in August 2009 when Mohamud was in e-mail contact with an unindicted associate overseas who was believed to be involved in terrorist activities. In December 2009, while the unindicted associate was in a frontier province of Pakistan, Mohamud and the associate discussed the possibility of Mohamud traveling to Pakistan to participate in violent jihad.”

The associate was “believed to be involved in terrorist activities,” we are told. Well, was he or was he not? What prompted the FBI to begin surveillance? What did the actual email say?

2. The associate suggests that the suspect contact a second associate also in Pakistan:

“The associate allegedly referred Mohamud to a second associate overseas and provided him with a name and e-mail address. In the months that followed, Mohamud made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the second associate.”

So, no contact is made and the suspect appears to be at a dead end. No crime has yet occurred and no criminal activity had actually been planned. In any case, the suspect was focused on committing crimes abroad and could have easily been arrested at the airport if he had purchased a ticket.

3. An FBI informant or undercover agent then makes contact with the suspect:

“Ultimately, an FBI undercover operative contacted Mohamud in a June 2010 e-mail under the guise of being an associate of the first unindicted associate.”

As a result of this meeting, we are told, the suspect revealed that he wrote articles supporting jihad and expressed a genuine interest in setting off a bomb:

“Mohamud also indicated he intended to become ‘operational,’ meaning he wanted to put an explosion together but needed help. The two met again in August 2010 in a Portland hotel.”

But we don’t know if this teen was simply showing off for someone whom he believed to be a friend of his associate or if he really intended to do these things. On the other hand, the transcripts provided in the affidavit indicate that a target location was already selected and a date had been chosen by the suspect. So, if the FBI monitored him, they would have found in short order just how serious and capable he was in carrying out this plot, right? If he was indeed serious, his own actions would have provided probable cause for an arrest without the FBI getting directly involved in the plot, right?

4. The FBI assembled a bomb – a dummy – for the suspect to detonate.

Here is the problem I have with this whole thing. Would this teen have given up after no contact was made with the second Pakistani associate, or would he have continued on his path toward jihad in Pakistan? Would he have even considered a domestic attack on his own? The FBI opened the door to the domestic attack. The FBI stoked his interest in committing a crime. That for me contaminates the case.

Would the suspect have been able to carry out the attack given limitations (be they financial, intellectual, etc.)? We are told that he picked a target and a date, but would he have been able to carry out the attack without the FBI’s involvement?

What we see is that the FBI engaged the suspect in a plot and assembled the dummy-weapon for him to use in this alleged attack that they helped to plan from the outset. Again, why did the FBI not just monitor him to see if, perhaps, he began to suddenly buy components for bomb-making? The FBI could have simply tapped his phone to see if the suspect began to recruit people on his own, instead of directly helping progress the plot along and bringing in their own moles as would-be conspirators. There are any number of things the FBI could have done to monitor, investigate, and if necessary thwart the alleged attack without becoming directly involved in the planning and execution of it.

I appreciate the effort it takes to track terrorist threats and suspected terrorist-type activities. I understand the type of work and the safety concerns involved – not just for the FBI agents, but also for the public.

All of this I fully understand.

In a free society, however, there is a serious distinction between stopping crimes from happening and actually becoming involved in a crime to ensure that it near-happens so an arrest can be made.

By becoming involved in the plot directly, the FBI contaminates the process and creates doubt about their own case. Furthermore, by providing the actual weapon to be used in a crime makes the FBI themselves complicit should anything go tragically wrong. Consider the possibility that the suspect in question somehow managed to figure out that the bomb was defective or a dummy? Let’s say he corrected whatever the mechanical issue was and indeed detonated the bomb: the FBI would be just as responsible for the loss of life as a result of the bombing, because they helped further the plot and helped assemble the weapon.

There are plenty of ways a serious threat can be thwarted without the FBI becoming directly involved in the planning and execution of a plot and without the FBI themselves providing the weapon(s). Otherwise, the only thing the FBI is thwarting is a plot of their own making.

The FBI’s shift in recent years from investigating actual threats in favor of helping to create legitimate threats (and then arresting those they helped along in the first place) also creates a real security issue. If the FBI is busy creating and furthering plots, then who is actually tracking real and significant threats?

When was the last actual arrest of a real al-Qaeda operative made in the United States? Zacarias Moussaoui was the last actual terrorist with any tie to al-Qaeda arrested and prosecuted that I am aware of. Most of the arrests made by federal authorities since then have relied strongly on the FBI becoming directly involved in moving a plot along, providing material and/or financial support to the alleged plotters, and in some instances actually identifying the locations to be targeted, as with the case of the so-called Liberty City Seven.

Author: Larisa Alexandrovna Horton

Larisa Alexandrovna Horton is an award-winning investigative reporter, formerly with RawStory.com and the Huffington Post.