Mohamed Osman Mohamud and Somali-American Terrorism Attempts

On Friday, the FBI arrested Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized US citizen from Somalia, on charges of plotting to detonate a bomb at a Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. Mohamud, like other would-be terrorists arrested in recent years, appears to have been an amateur without substantial skill or training. FBI agents, moreover, had been communicating with Mohamud for months. Mohamud, as an individual, did not ultimately pose a major security threat to the US. But if his plot indicates a growing trend of radicalized Somali-American youth contemplating terrorist attacks on US soil, then the incident takes on greater significance.

The LA Times has the details of Mohamud’s plot and arrest [I’ve edited out everything not directly related to the plot]:

The FBI began tracking Mohamud in August 2009 when they discovered he was e-mailing a former Oregon student who was living in Pakistan’s lawless northwest region, where Al Qaeda has a stronghold. The Associated Press reported that the bureau was led to Mohamud by a tip from someone concerned about him.

[…]

An FBI undercover agent contacted Mohamud and pretended to be Abdulhadi, providing an e-mail address that the FBI controlled. Mohamud and the agent met for the first time on July 30 in downtown Portland.

[…]

Mohamud told “Abdulhadi” that he “initially wanted to wage war in the U.S.” The FBI agent told Mohamud he could not tell him what to do, but suggested several options, including going “operational” or becoming a shaheed, or martyr. Mohamud said he wanted to build a car bomb, but would need help.

[…]

Abdulhadi, the first FBI agent, picked up Mohamud at about noon Friday, and they went to inspect the bomb. Built by FBI technicians, it appeared impressive. But the explosives, the detonation cord and the blasting caps all were inert.

“Beautiful,” Mohamud said.

At 4:45 p.m., they drove the van to Yamhill and Sixth Street and parked. Police had secretly kept the space open. Mohamud attached the blasting cap and flipped the toggle switch to arm the bomb, then put on his hard hat.

They walked several blocks, got in another car and drove to a pre-selected parking lot. Mohamud quickly dialed the number to detonate the bomb. When they didn’t hear anything, he got out of the car to look for a better signal, and FBI agents swarmed in for the arrest.

Some have questioned the behavior of the FBI agents. Others have argued that what happened to Mohamud constitutes entrapment. In response to such concerns, Attorney General Eric Holder has said, “I am confident there is no entrapment here…There were … a number of opportunities … that the defendant in this matter was given to retreat, to take a different path. He chose at every step to continue.”

From a security standpoint, three points emerge for me:

  1. Federal agents intercepted Mohamud at an early point in his radicalization and were able to neutralize whatever threat he posed.
  2. The plot demonstrates the vulnerability of public spaces in the US and shows that would-be terrorists are interested in targets beyond airplanes. Public spaces are difficult, if not impossible, to secure, and effective law enforcement remains the most likely avenue of preventing terrorist attacks such as the one Mohamud planned.
  3. Mohamud seems to have been motivated not primarily by religious concerns, but by political ones related to the situation in Somalia and to aspects of American foreign policy elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Mohamud’s arrest comes on the heels of other arrests of Somali-Americans on charges related to aiding al Shabab, the main rebel group in southern Somalia. As I have written concerning those incidents, “The persons arrested represent a tiny fraction of a large group of hardworking, patriotic, law-abiding US citizens and residents, many of whom came here to escape Somalia’s problems and find a better life for their families.”

Yet that tiny fraction – which perhaps numbers in the dozens – has the potential to commit major acts of violence in the US. That’s one reason why some analysts say more terror plots are on the way. Probably most would-be terrorists will continue to be amateurs as well, but the political fallout from Somalia’s civil war is clearly an increasing liability for the US.

One Response to Mohamed Osman Mohamud and Somali-American Terrorism Attempts

  1. Pingback: Attorney General Holder on the FBI’s Stings on Muslims « Sahel Blog

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