In downtown Portland, a fascinating question is being explored: How far can the government go in helping a potential terrorist explode a (fake) bomb before it’s called entrapment?
On trial is a 21-year-old Somali-American, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who pressed a cellphone button two years ago that he thought would detonate a bomb in downtown Portland where a large crowd was gathered for a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. But the bomb wasn’t real and Mohamud had been set up by undercover FBI agents, who constructed an elaborate fake bomb — complete with the smell of diesel fuel in the van where they all gathered — and convinced him that he could cause mass death and destruction by pressing the button.
Mohamud, who was born in Somalia but grew up in the suburbs of Portland, is being portrayed by his defense lawyers as a confused young man who was not capable of building and detonating such a device without being tricked by the FBI. But federal prosecutors said Mohamud devised the bomb plot himself, intent on doing major harm, and had many opportunities to back out of the plan.
Based on the comments some of the potential jurors who were dismissed made to The New York Times, the government may have a hard time convincing the entire jury that the government didn’t cross the line in tricking Mohamud.
Portland is a famously liberal city that prides itself on being a bastion of tolerance and civil liberties. The tree-lighting ceremony is a local tradition — one that was attended by an estimated 25,000 people on the November 2010 night when Mohamud tried to detonate the fake bomb — and many were shocked by the details of his arrest.
The prosecutor, assistant United States attorney Pamala R. Holsinger, told the jury that although the people may not have been in genuine physical danger, it was only because federal agents had prevented Mohamud from connecting with real terrorists who would have helped him create a real bomb. She said it was his intent that mattered.
“He plotted and schemed,” she said, and his goal for the people that night was unquestioned: “to kill each and every one of them.”
She said at one point undercover agents told him that many children would perhaps be killed. “Yeah, that’s what I’m looking for,” she said was his answer.
But Mohamud’s defense lawyer disputed that version of events.
“Did the government create the crime?” his lawyer, Stephen R. Sady, asked in his opening statements. “Did the F.B.I. foil its own plot?”
Under American law, someone cannot be convicted of committing a crime if he was tricked by authorities. So the government must prove Mohamud was predisposed to violence before undercover agents ever approached him.
During the closely watched trial, FBI agents will be testifying in disguise. The jury also will examine the government’s van that agents packed with phony explosives and gave to Mohamud, telling him it was the real thing.