PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - A Somali-born man charged in a Christmas-season bomb plot in Oregon was eager to “martyr” himself in a suicide mission, but FBI agents posing as al Qaeda operatives talked him into a plan to set off explosives remotely instead, one of them testified on Tuesday.
Returning to the witness stand for the second day of testimony in the trial of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, an undercover agent identified in court only by his pseudonym, Youssef, recounted offering the defendant a number of chances to back out of the plot.
But Mohamud’s enthusiasm and determination to forge ahead with a plan to bomb a crowded outdoor Christmas tree-lighting ceremony on November 26, 2010, in Portland never seemed to diminish, Youssef testified.
Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen and former Oregon State University student who was 19 at the time, is charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in an FBI sting operation criticized by defense lawyers as a blatant case of government entrapment.
If convicted, Mohamud, now 21, faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.
An FBI affidavit filed in the case says Mohamud was arrested after he tried to use a cellphone to detonate what he believed was a car bomb but was actually a harmless fake supplied by Youssef and a fellow FBI agent.
Youssef passed himself off as an al Qaeda recruiter, while his undercover FBI partner posed as an al Qaeda bomb expert named Hussein, according to testimony.
The fake bomb was planted in a van near a downtown square lined with shops and offices and crowded with thousands of people attending the holiday festivities, though authorities say the public was never in any real danger.
In opening statements as the trial got under way last week, defense attorney Stephen Sady argued that his client would never have tried to carry out a bombing on his own and that the FBI “created a crime that would have never happened without them.”
But in FBI testimony and in secretly recorded video and audio tapes of his meetings with undercover agents, Mohamud was shown by the prosecution as an eager participant who originally wanted to “martyr” himself by driving a bomb-packed van into the outdoor plaza and blowing himself up with it.
For a second day, spectators and members of the media were ordered out of the courtroom and into a nearby chamber to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television during testimony by Youssef, whose remained off camera to protect his identity.
Under questioning by assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight, the agent said he and his colleague grew concerned at one point because they considered Mohamud to be “suicidal, and we don’t want him to take matters into his own hands.”
The FBI also wanted to maintain tight control over the operation and to avoid any risk to public safety, he said.
In a video clip of Mohamud and his FBI handlers sharing a meal in a hotel room, the two agents are heard convincing Mohamud that he could ultimately do more to help “the cause” by staying alive. “We want to keep you for awhile,” Hussein says in the video. “We think there’s some things you can do better than just one time.”
They also discussed getting Mohamud out of Oregon to a Muslim country after November 26 in a move Youssef testified was aimed at giving Mohamud something to look forward to beyond the planned bombing.
The two FBI agents also gave Mohamud a shopping list of bomb-making components, including two cell phones, a cooking timer and an electrical toggle switch, and suggested he buy these items from different stores with other more common household items to make the purchases seem less suspicious.
Youssef testified that the shopping list was designed in part to “give him a sense of realism” as well as “time to reconsider.”
The agents also showed Mohamud a purported Islamist militant training video, which actually was produced by the FBI, depicting men with scarf-covered faces shooting guns, and one setting off a bomb with a cell-phone detonator. Youssef said Mohamud’s response to the video was that “it was beautiful.”
Reporting by Teresa Carson; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Phil Berlowitz