PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - A Somali-American man was found guilty on Thursday of trying to blow up a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in Oregon using a fake bomb supplied to him by undercover agents posing as Islamist militants, the public defender’s office said.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen and former Oregon State University student, faces a possible life prison term on his conviction on a single charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. Sentencing is set for May 14.
Mohamud was arrested shortly after attempting to use his cell phone to remotely detonate an artificial car bomb planted near a Portland square crowded with thousands of people attending the ceremony the day after Thanksgiving in 2010.
No one was hurt, and authorities say the public was never in real danger.
During a three-week trial in U.S. District Court in Portland, defense attorneys argued that overzealous law enforcement officers posing as al Qaeda militants invented a crime and entrapped their client.
But the jury agreed with the prosecution’s argument that Mohamud, 19 years old at the time of the crime, was already radicalized and could have backed out of the bomb plot at any point.
On the morning of the planned bombing, Mohamud reportedly told a friend that it was “the greatest morning of my life.” Hours later, he dialed a cell phone that he thought would trigger the bomb and kill thousands of people.
“Mr. Mohamud made a series of choices over a period of several years - choices that were leading him down a path that would have ended in violence,” Greg Fowler, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the Portland division, said in a statement.
“His actions showed little regard for the rights and responsibilities that come with being an American or respect for the lives that he was prepared to take,” he added.
The case, closely watched by many in the nation’s Muslim American community, was one of several sting operations in recent years in which individuals were tracked by undercover FBI agents and later tried to detonate fake bombs in various locations.
“We are disappointed with the verdict,” federal public defender Steven Wax said, adding that he planned to appeal. “There are a number of issues that will be raised.”
Defense lawyers had tried to paint a picture of Mohamud, who spent months with the undercover agents, as a young man who was particularly vulnerable to entrapment, which legal experts had earlier said was always a tough case to prove.
At trial, one of the undercover agents testified that he and a fellow agent were aware that Mohamud was lonely, had little money and that his family was in distress. He said Mohamud wept during their first meeting and that he heard his partner tell Mohamud on many occasions, “I love you.”
The agent also acknowledged that he and his partner had coached Mohamud on what he should say in a videotaped “goodbye” message they filmed of him weeks before the planned attack.
In the video, shown to the jury by prosecutors, Mohamud is seen solemnly saying to the camera: “A dark day is coming your way ... your people will not remain safe.”
Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for The Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the case could alienate the Muslim community, but was quick to say that “nobody wants to see any possibility of any sort of violence by a lone wolf.”
“I think convictions in these kinds of cases are almost forgone conclusions based on the government’s actions. They are the same in each case,” he said.
Reporting By Teresa Carson; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Leslie Adler and Eric Walsh