FBI tactics in Oregon bomb plot criticized
Residents wonder if suspect was entrapped in plan
PORTLAND, Ore.— Some residents of this famously liberal city are unnerved, not only by a plot to bomb an annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony last week but also by government tactics in the case.
They questioned whether federal agents crossed the line by training Mohamed O. Mohamud, 19, a Somali-American, to blow up a bomb, giving him $3,000 cash to rent an apartment, and providing him with a fake bomb.
The FBI affidavit “was a picture painted to make the suspect sound like a dangerous terrorist,’’ said Portland photographer Rich Burroughs. “I don’t think it’s clear at all that this person would have ever had access to even a fake bomb if not for the FBI.’’
Attorney General Eric Holder defended the agents yesterday, rejecting entrapment accusations.
Once the undercover operation began, Mohamud, who officials said had no formal ties to foreign terrorist groups, “chose at every step to continue’’ with the bombing plot, Holder said.
Many Portlanders were unsettled that a terrorism plot could unfold in their backyard — in Pioneer Courthouse Square, as thousands cheered the tree lighting — and not in much higher-profile cities such as New York or Los Angeles.
At a time when people are focused on body scans and intrusive pat-downs to prevent terrorist attacks, some Portlanders wondered if the FBI had gone too far and unnecessarily scared residents.
“What is distressing about the incident is not so much that the FBI arrested or otherwise intervened,’’ said resident Joe Clement, 24, “but that the FBI used him to create a scenario that scared a lot of people.’’
It is not unusual in Portland for actions by federal agents to be met with skepticism and criticism.
Portland was the first city in the nation to pull its officers from the FBI’s terrorism task force in 2005. The move came after the FBI wrongfully arrested a Portland attorney as a suspect in the 2004 Madrid train bombings — a mistake that prompted an FBI apology.
The FBI set up a sting to investigate Mohamud after receiving a tip.
Two undercover federal agents led Mohamud to believe that he could detonate a bomb with a cellphone, helped him choose an apartment in Portland, and instructed him to buy the equipment necessary to trigger the fake device.
Authorities say Mohamud parked a van full of explosives near the square on Friday night and was arrested shortly after he dialed a cellphone that he thought would blow up the bomb. Mohamud has been charged with attempting to detonate a weapon of mass destruction.
A fire on Sunday destroyed part of the Salman Al-Farisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, a college town about 75 miles southwest of Portland where Mohamud occasionally worshipped while attending Oregon State. No one was injured.
Police believe the fire was intentionally set and increased patrols around mosques and other Islamic sites in Portland.
At a news conference in Washington, Holder also said the FBI was investigating the fire. If the blaze is related to the arrest or to an attack on Islam, it “is something that I personally decry,’’ Holder said.
“It is not something that is consistent with who we are as Americans,’’ he said.
While leaders in the Somali community in the United States condemned the plot, some, including a friend of Mohamud, were concerned about federal agents possibly luring him into breaking the law.