PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Lawyers for the accused would-be bomber of an Oregon Christmas tree-lighting event sought on Wednesday to cast their Somali-born client as an emotionally fragile teenager prone to manipulation by undercover agents who coached him in planning an act of mass murder.
One of those agents, testifying under defense cross-examination in federal court, acknowledged that the target of the FBI’s sting operation was a lonely, financially strapped student whose parents’ marriage was unraveling.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen and former Oregon State University student, faces life in prison if convicted of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction to blow up the ceremony in Portland in November 2010. He was 19 at the time.
Defense attorneys argued last week at the start of the trial that their client was accused of a crime that was essentially the creation of overzealous law enforcement officers.
Mohamud, after months spent in the frequent company of two FBI agents posing as al Qaeda operatives, was arrested when he tried to use a cell phone to remotely detonate an artificial car bomb supplied by the agents, according to trial testimony.
The fake bomb was planted in a van left parked near a downtown Portland square lined with shops and offices and crowded with thousands of people attending an annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony the day after Thanksgiving. No one was hurt, and authorities say the public was never in real danger.
After two days on the witness stand recounting events leading up to Mohamud’s arrest, the FBI agent identified in court only by his undercover name, Youssef, took questions from defense lawyer Lisa Hay as she tried to paint the accused as someone especially vulnerable to entrapment.
Youssef testified that he and a fellow agent who went by the pseudonym Hussein were aware that Mohamud was lonely, that he had little money and that his family was in distress. He said Mohamud wept during their first meeting and that he heard his partner tell Mohamud on many occasions, “I love you.”
At one meeting, the two agents gave Mohamud some $2,800 in cash to rent an apartment in Corvallis, Oregon, near campus, lecturing him not to spend the money frivolously, Youssef told the jury.
Youssef also acknowledged that he and Hussein had coached Mohamud on what he should say in the videotaped “goodbye” message they filmed of him weeks before the planned attack, and even suggested he wear the red-and-white checkered scarf that adorned his head in the video.
In the video, shown to the jury by prosecutors on Tuesday, Mohamud is seen solemnly saying to the camera: “A dark day is coming your way ... your people will not remain safe.”
Asked by Hay whether making such a video might have made it harder for Mohamud to back out of the alleged plot, Youssef replied that the idea “didn’t occur to me.”
Youssef further testified that he personally had written out the hand-scrawled list of bomb-making components Mohamud was instructed to buy, a shopping exercise that the agent insisted was designed “to test his resolve.”
The agent previously testified that he and Hussein had given Mohamud numerous opportunities to reconsider going through with the plan but that the defendant never wavered. According to Youssef, Mohamud originally wanted to “martyr” himself in a suicide mission, but the agents talked him out of that.
On Wednesday, the jury was shown another video secretly filmed of the two agents and Mohamud conducting a practice detonation of a small bomb at a remote site in Oregon.
Following his partner to the witness stand, Hussein testified that the test blast was viewed by investigators as yet another opportunity for Mohamud to change his mind.
In an audio recording of a conversation held after the practice bombing, the agents are heard asking Mohamud whether he thinks he will be able to go through with a much larger real bombing that would cause extreme carnage and death.
“That’s what I want for these people,” Mohamud answers. “It’s going to be a black Friday for them.”
Reporting by Teresa Carson; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara