PORTLAND, Ore. —A Somali-born 19-year-old plotted "a spectacular show" of terrorism for months, saying he didn't mind that children would die if he bombed a crowded Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, according to a law-enforcement official and court documents.
He never got the chance. Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested Friday in downtown Portland after using a cell phone to try to detonate what he thought were explosives in a van, prosecutors said. It turned out to be a dummy bomb put together by FBI agents.
It is the latest in a string of alleged terrorist plots by U.S. citizens or residents, including a Times Square plot in which a Pakistan-born man pleaded guilty earlier this year to trying to set off a car bomb at a bustling street corner. Last month, a Virginia resident, also Pakistan-born, was accused in a bomb plot to kill commuters.
In the Portland plot, Mohamud believed he was receiving help from a larger ring of jihadists as he communicated with undercover federal agents, but no foreign terrorist organization was directing him, according to a law-enforcement official who wasn't authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The official said Mohamud was committed to the plot and planned the details alone, including where to park the van to hurt the most people.
"I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave dead or injured," Mohamud said, according to the affidavit.
"It's in Oregon, and Oregon, like you know, nobody ever thinks about it," the suspect told an agent in one discussion.
Thousands of people had gathered Friday on a cold, clear night for the annual event at Pioneer Courthouse Square, a plaza often referred to as "Portland's living room" because of its popularity.
Just 10 minutes before Mohamud's 5:40 p.m. arrest, the lighting ceremony began. Babies sat on shoulders, and children cheered at the first appearance of Santa Claus onstage.
The tree-lighting on the bricks of the plaza went off without a hitch just as the arrest was taking place.
Mohamud, who grew up in Beaverton, was a former student at Oregon State University. He had been enrolled in courses from late 2009 until Oct. 6 before withdrawing, said Oregon State University spokesman Todd Simmons.
The law-enforcement official who spoke to the AP on Saturday said agents began investigating Mohamud after receiving a tip from someone who was concerned about him. The official declined to provide any more detail about the relationship between Mohamud and that source.
In an e-mail exchange with an undercover agent Mohamud complained, "I have been betrayed by my family," although he describes no specific action that family members took.
FBI monitored e-mail
The FBI monitored Mohamud's e-mail and found that he was in contact with people overseas, asking how he could travel to Pakistan and join the fight for jihad, according to an FBI affidavit.
According to the law enforcement official, Mohamud e-mailed a friend living in Pakistan who had been a student in Oregon in 2007-08 and been in Yemen as well.
For reasons that have not been explained, Mohamud tried to board a flight to Kodiak, Alaska, from Portland on June 14, wasn't allowed to board and was interviewed by the FBI, the affidavit states.
Mohamud told the FBI he wanted to earn money fishing and then travel to join "the brothers." He said he had previously hoped to travel to Yemen but had never obtained a ticket or a visa.
On June 23, an undercover agent contacted Mohamud by e-mail, pretending to be affiliated with the "unindicted associate" Mohamud had sent e-mails to.
The FBI's affidavit says the friend in Pakistan referred him to another associate, but gave him an e-mail address that Mohamud tried repeatedly to use unsuccessfully. The official said FBI agents saw that as an opportunity and e-mailed Mohamud in response, claiming to be associates of his friend, the former student.
The affidavit said Mohamud was warned several times about the seriousness of his plan, that women and children could be killed, and that he could back out. But he told agents: "Since I was 15 I thought about all this" and "It's gonna be a fireworks show... a spectacular show."
Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Corvallis, was charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. A court appearance was set for Monday.