Trial Begins for Alleged 'Christmas Tree Bomber'
PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - A federal prosecutor and a public defender painted very different portraits of a teenager accused of trying to detonate a truck bomb at a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in 2010, as his trial began.
Prosecutors claim that Mohamed Mohamud, now 21, planned to wage violent jihad in the United States.
Mohamud's attorneys claim he was an impressionable and conflicted teen-ager who was provoked into the plot by undercover FBI agents.
Mohamud's trial began Friday after more than a day of jury selection. The jury pool of more than 100 was the largest that U.S. District Judge Garr King has had in any case, the judge said.
Nine women and seven men were selected.
The FBI arrested Mohamud on Nov. 26, 2010, in a sting operation.
The trial will focus predisposition and inducement: whether Mohamud was predisposed to commit an act of terrorism, or induced into it by undercover agents.
Mohamud wore a black blazer and sat at the table with his public defenders, intently listening to the proceedings. He took notes while the prosecution made opening arguments, and at one point his attorney Lisa Hay rubbed his back consolingly.
Prosecutor Pam Holsinger set the scene for the jury at Pioneer Courthouse Square, where Mohamud was arrested after trying to detonate what he thought was a van full of explosives.
Holsinger said Mohamud was "at peace" with his radical version of Islam, which allowed killing non-Muslims in the West to avenge the deaths of Muslims in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The FBI "intervened at a critical moment" to stop a man who planned the deaths of many innocent people, Holsinger said.
She called Mohamud an "Internet savvy" teen-ager who was "very active in the global jihad online world." Holsinger said the trial "offers a unique and powerful window" into how groups such as al-Qaeda recruit militants in "conflict-free zones," including the United States.
Holsinger said Mohamud was "very proud" of his writings in the al-Qaeda magazine "Jihad Recollections" and of his relationship with its editor, American-born Samir Khan.
Khan was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Holsinger said Mohamud was "living a double life," as a college student who lied to his parents about his plans to travel to Yemen.
She discussed his contacts with Amro Alali, a Saudi national whom the FBI believed planned to travel to Afghanistan to fight alongside Islamic militants.
Mohamud's father Osman called the FBI in August 2009, concerned that his son would be "brainwashed" by militants, Holsinger said.
Prosecutors say the FBI began its undercover sting operation shortly after agents interviewed Mohamud at the Portland airport in June 2010, where he had been told he was on a no-fly list.
By engaging Mohamud face-to-face, the FBI hoped to determine if he "was dangerous or just talk," Holsinger said.
The undercover agents persuaded Mohamud they had contact with Amro Alali, and asked him to pick a date, location and plan for an attack, prosecutors claim.
Holsinger said the undercover agents gave Mohamud "multiple outs," while making sure he understood the gravity of the bomb plot.
During meetings, agents assigned Mohamud tasks such as buying a timer and switch and making maps, and Mohamud "did everything asked of him," Holsinger said.
Public defender Steve Sady painted a different picture. He quoted an FBI agent who described Mohamud as a "manipulatable and conflicted kid."
Mohamud's attorneys claim the government induced the plot, and that while it is a "hard case," the government is "starting at the end" by focusing on the day of the planned attack.
"In America, we don't create crime," Sady said. "The FBI cannot create the very crime they intend to stop."
Friends described Mohamud as a "friendly, goofy, kind." He liked rap music, basketball and Harry Potter novels.
At the same time, he was seeking a deeper sense of his religion, and "looking for identity and community overseas," Sady said. He was not "someone who was sitting at home dreaming about blowing up his home town."
Mohamud's frequent use of jihadist language about a "glorious struggle" was "all talk" until the FBI got involved, Sady said.
When Mohamud's father called the FBI in 2009, Sady said, agents neglected to tell his father that his son already was under surveillance.
Mohamud studied civil engineering at Oregon State University, where his consumption of alcohol and marijuana were inconsistent with devout Islam, Sady said.
Around this time, agents noticed Mohamud's fear of police and at one point an agent considered him "an ideal candidate for intervention," Sady said.
One of the FBI's first electronic communications with Mohamud was through an operative who posed as a recent Muslim convert, "Bill Smith."
In those emails, Sady maintained that it was "Smith" who introduced the idea of "bringing the fight here."
"This is the FBI," Sady said, adding that being vulnerable to manipulation is not the same as being predisposed to commit a crime.
When Mohamud met with the two agents he believed to be al-Qaeda recruiters, Sady said, the agents tried to "egg him on" and dissuade him from traveling abroad.
"Allah, I'm sure, has good reason for you to stay where you are," one agent allegedly told Mohamud.
The agents developed a relationship with Mohamud in the months leading up to his arrest, and used "every social science trick," such as praise and flattery, to mold him, Sady said.
"You are an amazing 19 year old," "I trust you with my life," and "I found a jewel in the rough," were among the flattering statements the agents told Mohamud, Sady said.
Sady said "the FBI just went too far," and created a crime that would not have happened but for their sting.
Testimony continues today (Monday).