Security Theater on the Willamette
First the news, in case you missed it over the weekend. It was in the Times, so it must be Big:
PORTLAND, Ore. — A Somali-born teenager who thought he was detonating a car bomb at a packed Christmas tree-lighting ceremony downtown here was arrested by the authorities on Friday night after federal agents said that they had spent nearly six months setting up a sting operation.
The bomb, which was in a van parked off Pioneer Courthouse Square, was a fake — planted by F.B.I. agents as part of the elaborate sting — but “the threat was very real,” Arthur Balizan, the F.B.I.’s special agent in charge in Oregon, said in a statement released by the Department of Justice. An estimated 10,000 people were at the ceremony on Friday night, the Portland police said.
Frightening stuff, as the FBI sez:
“Our investigation shows that Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale,” said Arthur Balizan, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Oregon. “At the same time, I want to reassure the people of this community that, at every turn, we denied him the ability to actually carry out the attack.”
Whoa, hold on a sec: At every turn?
Perhaps — and we’re just spitballing here — from the very first turn?
As an Expat Oregonian — half our library is from Powell’s, just a few blocks from Pioneer Courthouse Square — we take more than a passing interest in this case. So let’s take a leisurely stroll through the indictment…
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-born naturalized American, first entertained fantasies of jihad at age 15 — as a high school freshman or sophomore, presumably. Now 19, and a student at Oregon State University in Corvallis, he apparently did little more than fantasize — there’s no prior criminal record being offered, nor any prior terrorist activity.
What there is — all there is — are three articles published by something called “Jihad Recollections” in 2009, plus a fourth article submitted to (but apparently not published) by “Inspire,” which the FBI describes as “an extremist publication published by al Malahim media, the media arm of Al Queda of the Arabian Peninsula, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, which has included articles from OSAMA BIN LADEN and articles about committing violent jihadi attacks.”
So, what was in those articles? The FBI saw fit to summarize only one (ellipses in the original):
In his April 2009 article, entitled “Getting in shape without weights,” MOHAMUD offered tips on preparing for violent jihad. Preparing militarily, he said, includes the need to “exercise the body and to prepare it for war….” MOHAMUD wrote that the “Mujahid … must fulfill the obligation of preparing himself physically for jihad…” and that it is necessarily to train “in order to damage the enemies of Allah as much as possible.” MOHAMUD also wrote that it terrorizes the enemy when the Mujahideen strike with speed and planning, and that the ability to carry on for a long period of time is especially helpful during raids on the enemy.
And… that’s it. Physical Fitness for Jihadis. That’s the most damning thing the FBI can find in his background.
Not an auspicious start.
What apparently caught the FBI’s attention were messages Mohamud exchanged last year with an overseas correspondent. Aha! There’s the Terrorist Connection, right?
Well, not quite. At least, not in so many words:
Court authorized surveillance obtained during this investigation showed that in August 2009 MOHAMUD was in email contact with Unindicted Associate One (UA1). In December of 2009, UA1 was located in the northwest frontier province of Pakistan, an area known to harbor terrorists. MOHAMUD and UA1 communicated regularly, and in December 2009 I believe, using coded language, they discussed the possibility of MOHAMUD traveling to Pakistan to prepare for violent jihad. In the months that followed this exchange, MOHAMUD made multiple efforts to contact Unindicted Associate Two (UA2), the individual he believed would help facilitate his travel overseas.
Funny thing about that. We’re located in San Diego, an area known to harbor illegal aliens. And yet — are you sitting down? — we’re an American Citizen!
More to the point: Other than general geographic location, we’re offered no suggestion that “Unindicted Associate One” is an actual terrorist, or even has ties to actual terrorists. We’re not even offered the figleaf of a National Security confidentiality issue. And because of the “coded language,” all we have on record are examples like this, from Unindicted Associate One:
it’s me (UA1), i made it 2 OMRA, [praise be to god] if u wanna come, theres a bro that will contact u about the proper paperwork u need 2 come… i cant go online 4 a while,, i hope 2 see u soon
OMRA, the FBI tells us, is a pilgrimage to the Ka’bah, “a sacred Muslim site that is located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.” But since the message itself was sent from northwest Pakistan — as suggested by the IP address — there’s clearly something sneaky going on. But what?
I believe that UA1 had traveled from Yemen to Pakistan between August and December 2009 and the email described above was sent to MOHAMUD to notify him that UA1 had joined others involved in terrorist activities. Furthermore, I believe this email was an invitation for MOHAMUD to join him.
Sure, why not. We’ll stipulate for discussion that Mohamud was indeed being recruited for something, and it wasn’t necessarily a religious pilgrimage.
Problem is, he never accepted.
Not that he didn’t try.
Mohamud was given the email address of a second person to contact. But his messages bounced. Repeatedly. For six months.
Seems he had used the wrong address. Typo. Happens to the best of us.
And this is where the FBI steps in.
Let’s pause here a moment. Based on the evidence offered so far, has Mohamud committed a crime? Sure, he’s somehow caught the attention of Our Nation’s Guardians, and they’re keeping tabs on him — but has he committed a crime?
This is fundamentally important. Because in everything that follows, he is no longer in contact with Unindicted Associates One or Two. Instead, he is in contact with an Undercover Fed. And how he interacts with the Undercover Fed is what directly leads to the Foiled Pioneer Courthouse Square Bombing.
But first, there’s the Fishing Trip That Didn’t Happen:
On June 14, 2010, MOHAMUD was contacted at Portland, Oregon International Airport after he attempted to board a flight to Kodiak, Alaska. MOHAMUD was not allowed to board the aircraft. Shortly thereafter, MOHAMUD was interviewed by the FBI. During the interview, agents asked MOHAMUD about his planned trip to Alaska. MOHAMUD stated that he had secured a fishing job in Alaska through a friend and that he intended to stay with him through the summer. MOHAMUD said that he had previously intended to travel to Yemen, but had never obtained a ticket or a visa. When asked if he knew someone in Yemen, he stated that he did and had been in contact with UA1.
Notice the Dog That Doesn’t Bark: Mohamud doesn’t lie to the Feds. He freely mentions his contact with Yemen. He even mentions wanting to travel to Yemen. No, he doesn’t mention Pakistan — but while the FBI implies Mohamud knew his contact was now in Pakistan, they don’t say as much.
And this is a criminal indictment, mind you. You’d think they’d lard it up as much as they could.
So we’re into June now, and still no evidence of a crime. And while it seems clear where Mohamud’s sympathies lie, so far they’re only that: sympathies. Nothing specific. Nothing actionable.
Which begs the question: Where in hell did he get the idea to bomb Pioneer Courthouse Square?
Why, from the FBI, of course!
Okay, we’re fudging slightly. But only a little.
On June 23, Mohamud finally heard back from Unindicted Associate Two. Only it wasn’t really UA2 — it was FBI Undercover Employee One. After exchanging a few messages, they finally met on July 30 in Portland. They walked to a nearby hotel. The room was bugged.
Well, it was supposed to be:
UCE1 was equipped with audio equipment to record the meeting. However, due to technical problems the meeting was not recorded.
Future meetings were, and partial transcripts are provided. But the initial meeting — the meeting that supposedly establishes Mohamud’s criminal intent — well, we’ll have to take the FBI’s word for it.
Which we will. What the heck. It’s not like the FBI has anything to hide.
Here’s what the FBI says happened in the hotel room. We’re going to excerpt at length, because it’s the crux of the case:
UCE1 [the undercover agent] asked what MOHAMUD would do “for the cause.” MOHAMUD said he initially wanted to wage war in the U.S. Later on, MOHAMUD read one of the Hadiths and had a dream. In the dream MOHAMUD said he traveled to Yemen and received training. Afterwards, he was sent to Afghanistan to lead an army against the infidels. UCE1 said this was a good dream, but that MOHAMUD must be careful. MOHAMUD said he wanted to introduce some brothers to UCE1. UCE1 said he should not tell anyone about him or this meeting to protect MOHAMUD and himself.
So: Mohamud wants to lead an army against the infidels. In Afghanistan, not in Portland.
The meeting continues:
UCE1 then asked what MOHAMUD would do for the cause. MOHAMUD said he “could do anything.” UCE1 said he could not tell him what to do, that it had to come from his own heart and Allah. UCE1 suggested the following options: (1) pray five times a day and spread Islam to others; (2) continue studying and get an engineering or medical degree so he could help the brothers overseas; (3) raise frunds for the brothers overseas; (4) become “operational;” and (5) become a “shaheed” (martyr). MOHAMUD immediately said he wanted to be “operational,” but noted he did not know how and he would need training.
Did you catch that? The FBI suggested the following options. Mohamud was literally clueless until he was presented with a menu.
That menu is a legal requirement, by the way — it’s the FBI’s main defense against a charge of entrapment. They have to show that Mohamud chose a criminal option over the noncriminal options being offered.
Fair enough. He did. But not before the FBI mentioned it to him.
Then again, it wasn’t a seed that required much watering:
When asked to elaborate on what he meant by being operational, MOHAMUD said he wanted to put an explosion together and went on to say he has heard of brothers putting stuff in a car, parking it by a target, and detonating it. UCE1 indicated he would be able to help out with this type of operation be introducing MOHAMUD to a brother who was an expert in explosives.
Okay, so Mohamud volunteers that he wants to be the next Times Square Bomber. That is definitely Not Nice.
And clearly, it’s been on his mind awhile. Say, since May 1. About seven weeks.
Seven weeks in which he did nothing to pursue it.
At least, until the FBI gave him the opportunity:
UCE1 asked MOHAMUD to do some research about possible targets. UCE1 concluded the meeting by saying he would contact MOHAMUD via e-mail and see him again in approximately four weeks.
Again, note the detail: The FBI asked him to do some research about possible targets.
That’s not the story we want to hear.
Here’s the story that would make sense: Inspired by the Times Square Bomber, Mohamud hatches a detailed plot to bomb Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. But frustrated with his lack of technical expertise, he makes serious inquiries about methods for making and remotely detonating bombs. Those inquiries catch the attention of the FBI, which mounts a sting operation to capture Mohamud before his violent scheme comes to fruition.
Only it didn’t go down that way. Quite the opposite, really. Look what happened at the next meeting, on August 19:
UCE1 asked MOHAMUD how long he had been thinking specifically of an attack on Pioneer Square, and MOHAMUD said since UCE1 and MOHAMUD had talked before. MOHAMUD said that he looked at a couple of places, looked to see where a vehicle could be placed and where the most people were and he decided that Pioneer Square was the best place.
There’s a second Undercover Fed at that meeting — UCE2 — and when they leave the hotel to scope out the location, he gets the same answer:
UCE2 asked what MOHAMUD would have done if he had never met the UCEs. MOHAMUD explained that one of his plans was to leave the country without graduating and go visit his friend in Saudi Arabia. MOHAMUD implied that from Saudi Arabia he would then try to meet the right people. MOHAMUD also said that UA1 [the original unidentified real correspondent] told MOHAMUD to come overseas and study, which would give MOHAMUD a legitimate reason to travel. MOHAMUD also discussed his plan to enter Yemen.
Again, and again, and again: What is he telling us?
Maybe something like this: If Mohamud had never met the FBI agents, he would never have thought about bombing Pioneer Courthouse Square. He would have done some commerical fishing in Alaska if he could fly, and he would visit Saudi Arabia and maybe Yemen if he could.
And “meeting the right people”? Well, that’s implied.
Make no mistake: There’s also a lot of verbatim grisly detail about bombing Pioneer Courthouse Square, now that it’s on the table. Given the idea and the opportunity, Mohamud was more than willing to the push the button. Later, he actually did. But before the FBI stepped in — and in their own account — there was no idea, and no opportunity.
We can’t stress that enough.
How ridiculous does it get? By September 7, this ridiculous:
UCE2 also asked MOHAMUD if he was willing to purchase some components for the bomb. MOHAMUD agreed and the UCEs asked him to buy one Utilitek Mechanical Programmable Timer, two Nokia prepaid cellular telephones, one heavy duty toggle switch and one heavy duty 9Volt snap connector. Additionally, following up an earlier phone call between UCE1 and MOHAMUD, the UCEs spoke with MOHAMUD about finding his own apartment where they could meet and “hide out” for a few days after the attack. The UCEs provided MOHAMUD with $2700 in United States currency to cover the cost of this apartment and $110 for the bomb components that UCE1 and UCE2 asked MOHAMUD to buy and send them.
Mohamud didn’t know how to make a bomb.
So the FBI made one for him.
And gave him the money to buy parts.
Result: Mohamud is arrested Friday night for “Attempted Use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction” — a crime he never would have even considered committing without the FBI guiding him every step of the way.
And this is public safety?
“This defendant’s chilling determination is a stark reminder that there are people — even here in Oregon — who are determined to kill Americans,” said Oregon U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton. “The good work of law enforcement protected Oregonians in this case — and we have no reason to believe there is any continuing threat arising from this case.”
That’s rich. Oregonians needed no “protection,” because they were never in danger. There’s no “continuing threat,” because there was never a threat to begin with.
Bruce Schneier gets credit for coining the term “Security Theater”, which Wikipedia defines as “security countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security.” Lately we’ve applied it to TSA crotch-grabbing at airports, but there’s nothing like a Fantasy Terrorist Plot to really see it in action.
U.S. v. Mohamud [PDF]
Jihad at Pioneer Courthouse Square [Steve Duin/The Oregonian]