PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - A Somali-born teenager pleaded not guilty in federal court on Monday to charges that he tried to detonate what he thought was a car bomb at a crowded Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Oregon last week.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was arrested on Friday in Portland, capping an elaborate FBI sting operation that federal investigators say revealed his determination to commit mass slaughter.
A single-page federal indictment returned on Monday against Mohamud, who had attended Oregon State University, charged him with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The same charge was lodged against Mohamud in a criminal complaint filed on Friday, but the indictment frees the government from the need to present its case to a judge in a preliminary hearing in order to go to trial.
Defense attorney Stephen Sady entered a not-guilty plea on Mohamud’s behalf during a 15-minute arraignment in U.S. District Court in Portland, accusing the FBI of essentially entrapping his client.
Sady argued that Mohamud was drawn into trouble by “quite sophisticated government agents” who were “basically grooming the individual,” and that his arrest the day after the Thanksgiving holiday “was timed for maximum impact and maximum publicity.”
Sady also criticized FBI agents for failing to record their first encounter with the suspect. The FBI has acknowledged that technical difficulties prevented that initial meeting from being captured on tape.
Mohamud, who entered the packed courtroom in shackles but smiling, spoke little during the proceedings except to answer quietly, “Yes, your honor,” when the federal magistrate asked if he understood the charges against him.
The judge tentatively set Mohamud’s trial to begin during the first week of February. Mohamud remains in detention without bond, and a bail hearing has not been set.
An FBI affidavit filed in the case said Mohamud was taken into custody after he attempted to use a cell phone to trigger what he believed was a car bomb but was a fake device supplied by agents posing as operatives for Islamic extremists.
The phony bomb was planted in a popular downtown Portland square lined with shops and offices and crowded with thousands of people attending an annual tree-lighting ceremony, but officials said the public was never in any danger.
Senior FBI agent Arthur Balizan has said the potential threat posed by Mohamud was real and that the investigation showed he “was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale.”
At a news conference earlier on Monday in Washington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed the notion that Mohamud was a victim of government entrapment.
“This was an individual who was given a number of opportunities to desist from his course of action but at every turn decided that he wanted to continue,” Holder said. “I am confident that there is no entrapment here and no entrapment claim will be found to be successful.”
The case marks the latest in a series of FBI sting operations. Last month a Jordanian national who was ensnared in an FBI undercover operation was sentenced to 24 years in prison for plotting to blow up a Dallas skyscraper.
“These investigations are extremely important, it is part of a forward-leaning way in which the Justice Department, the FBI, our law enforcement partners at the state and local level are trying to find people who are bound and determined to harm Americans and American interests around the world,” Holder said.
Holder also said U.S. authorities were looking into whether an arson attack on Sunday against a mosque where Mohamud had worshiped may have been carried out in retribution for the alleged bomb plot with which he is charged.
The FBI has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the arson case.
Writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Simao