Oregon Christmas tree-lighting bomb plot case goes to jury after 6 hours of closing arguments

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The federal terrorism trial of an Oregon man accused of attempting to detonate a bomb at Portland's 2010 Christmas tree-lighting went to the jury late Wednesday afternoon.

In their deliberations over the guilt or innocence of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, jurors will take on a case unique for several reasons.

For one, facts aren't in dispute: Mohamud's defense attorneys and the government prosecutors trying to imprison him for life agree that on Nov. 26, 2010, the then-17-year-old Mohamud intended to kill tens of thousands of people.

For another, the very nature of the case means the prosecution finds itself playing defense. It must prove that the FBI did not entrap nor induce Mohamud into the crime during a yearlong sting operation.

And last, the jurors' decision will focus most prominently on one thing: What Mohamud was thinking when he was first approached over email by an FBI agent pretending to be a radical Islamic jihadi. Was he committed to violent jihad, as he claimed to be online and in submissions to an al-Qaida-sponsored magazine? Or was he a confused, angry teenager who had just begun to leave an unsavory past behind?

After 10 days of testimony and a day of closing arguments from each side's attorneys, jurors will be asked to make a decision based on their impressions of Mohamud's state of mind. It was a piece of evidence they never got to explore fully — Mohamud was never called to testify.

Instead, the jurors have thousands of exhibits and hours of testimony from friends, parents, undercover FBI agents and experts in counterterrorism, teenage brain development and the psychology of the Muslim world.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight told them that their decision is easy. Mohamud pressed a keypad button on a black Nokia cellphone and intended to kill people. Whatever else they might think about the methods of undercover agents or the government's decision to investigate a teenager, the underlying decision was Mohamud's and the motivation was hatred of the West, a predisposition he had held onto since he was 15.

"This offense was one a person only commits because they wholeheartedly wanted to," Knight said.

Think about it from the FBI's perspective, Knight told jurors. In 2009, Somali teenagers abruptly disappeared from Minneapolis, purportedly en route to join an al-Qaida affiliate in East Africa. At about the same time, investigators came across Mohamud, an Oregon-based Somali-American teenager who traded a total of 150 emails with al-Qaida lieutenant Samir Khan.

Mohamud, then 18, was a presence on radical Islamic websites and contributed to the magazine "Jihad Recollections."

Agents testified that they didn't think Mohamud was a real threat for months. Even a July 30, 2010, face-to-face encounter with an undercover FBI agent posing as an al-Qaida recruiter didn't convince them that Mohamud was ready to commit acts of terrorism.

But slowly, month by month, meeting by meeting, the agents grew more convinced Mohamud was a real threat, Knight said. And by the time Mohamud gleefully witnessed a live detonation of a bomb on Nov. 7, 2010, staged by the undercover agents in rural Oregon, they were sure they had found a man who would kill if given the chance. The agents testified they felt lucky to have intercepted Mohamud before he met a real terrorist.

One of the agents emailed him, asking if he was sure he wanted to move ahead with the alleged plot. Mohamud responded that he prayed for guidance and woke with his faith "sky high."

"The traffic light is green lol," Mohamud wrote.

But it was a different green light the defense wanted jurors to focus on.

"We've got the green light to target Mohamud," an FBI agent wrote in an email. That was proof that the FBI was running a pre-made terrorism operation in search of a suspect, defense attorney Steve Sady said.

They found one in a vulnerable teenager who was conflicted about his faith, often broke and struggling under the weight of expectations of his parents, who were in the process of splitting up, Sady argued Wednesday.

Mohamud wasn't radicalized by online recruiters or friends with jihadist leanings, but rather by a Justice Department hungry for convictions that ignored every caution sign along the way while manipulating Mohamud's faith and plying him with praise and the promise of a life leading other jihadis, Sady said.

The agents could have forestalled or even prevented Mohamud's radicalization. Instead, they encouraged it.

"You don't put your thumb on the scale of evil," Sady said.

Think about it from Mohamud's point of view, he said. With a learner's permit and braces, not yet able to drive himself to orthodontist appointments in Portland, Mohamud was beginning to enjoy life in college. By the fall of 2009, he hadn't written much about radical Islam — though he did check the websites — and he was beginning to break from a strict Muslim upbringing.

He smoked, he drank and he had sex out of wedlock. While his home life was an imperfect mess, he had friends, goals and a talent for writing. Then, the FBI entered the picture in the person of "Bill Smith," the pseudonym of an FBI informant who began to probe Mohamud over emails about his views on radical Islam.

Sady said jurors must decide whether, given all the evidence, Mohamud was already predisposed to terrorism when the first email hit his inbox on Nov. 9, 2010.

There were no real surprises in the case — much of it was spelled out in two years of pretrial filings, arguments and closed-door meetings about classified material.

Jurors must decide whether the FBI entrapped Mohamud in a yearlong sting operation that began with emails and culminated in the bomb plot. Jurors can also find Mohamud wasn't entrapped, but is not guilty because he was induced by the FBI to commit the crime.

Mohamud, now 21, faces life in prison if convicted.


Reach reporter Nigel Duara on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/127q7aU