PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - A jury was empanelled on Friday to hear the trial of a Somali-born man charged with trying to blow up a crowd of people at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Oregon two years ago with a fake bomb supplied by undercover agents posing as militant Islamists.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was 19 when he was arrested, faces life in prison on a single charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in a plot to blow up the 2010 festivities at a public plaza in downtown Portland.
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 actually a fake device supplied by agents posing as operatives for Islamic extremists.
The phony bomb was planted in a downtown square lined with shops and offices and crowded with thousands of people attending the annual tree-lighting ceremony. But officials said the public was never in any danger.
Court documents describe a months-long undercover operation staged by the FBI. Undercover agents emailed and met with Mohamud multiple times and eventually provided him with a van laden with what he thought was a bomb.
The defendant, now 21, has spent more than two years in jail as lawyers wrangled over evidence, witnesses and court procedures. Jury selection in the case began on Thursday and was completed by midday Friday.
U.S. District Judge Garr King gave instructions to the newly seated 12 jurors and four alternates, and opening arguments were slated to begin on Friday afternoon.
Mohamud has pleaded not guilty and defense attorneys are expected to mount an entrapment defense, arguing that the former Oregon State University student would never had committed such an act without the FBI’s grooming and urging.
“The only defense they can really mount is entrapment,” said Tung Yin, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, adding that this would be a difficult approach. “We’ve seen this defense with other, similar cases and none have succeeded.”
Mohamud’s arrest 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.
Yin said some defendants in similar cases have pleaded guilty to lesser charges or were found guilty. But he also noted that Portland jury pools are seen as more liberal than in other areas of the country and more skeptical of the government.
“If you get just two or three people like that, then the government can’t convict. It will be a hung jury,” Yin said. “If entrapment (defense) is ever going to succeed, it will be in this case.”
The defendant’s young age and the fact that he was alone and there were at least two experienced undercover operatives assigned to him might also work in his favor, Yin said.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the pending case. Senior FBI agent Arthur Balizan said at the time of Mohamud’s arrest that the potential threat posed was real and that the investigation showed he “was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has also dismissed the notion that Mohamud was a victim of government entrapment, saying that he “at every turn decided that he wanted to continue.” The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment on the case ahead of the trial.
The Muslim community has been watching the case closely.
“We’re concerned about genuine plots to harm Americans and we hope each and every one of them is foiled,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“But we are also concerned that they are focusing so many resources on people who would never have committed a crime, that they are diverting resources to foil actual lone wolf plots,” he added.
Reporting by Teresa; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Steve Gorman, Dan Grebler, Gary Hill