GWEN IFILL: Now, after his arrest in Portland, Oregon, on Friday night, a young homegrown terror suspect pleaded not guilty in federal court today. Margaret Warner has the story.
MARGARET WARNER: Mohamed Osman Mohamud arraignment came three days after he allegedly tried to set off a car bomb in downtown Portland. The charge? Attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.
In Washington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made his first public comment on the case.
U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: We were able to thwart somebody who clearly had the intention, by his own words and by his actions, to harm a great many people, to do real serious damage to property, to put at risk the lives of American citizens, including children.
MARGARET WARNER: The 19-year-old Somali-American was arrested late Friday not far from this intersection, as he reportedly tried to detonate by cell phone what he thought was a bomb.
The bomb had been placed near a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony in a large public square. Federal officials said the FBI had recorded Mohamud saying earlier, “I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured.”
In fact, the bomb was an elaborate fake, supplied by the FBI in a six-month sting operation. Agents first contacted Mohamud last June via e-mail posing as an associate of a man he was in touch with overseas. The plot unfolded from there, with two undercover agents assisting Mohamud.
Attorney General Holder today rejected any suggestion that Mohamud was lured into committing illegal acts.
ERIC HOLDER: I am confident that there is no entrapment here; no entrapment claim will be found to be successful. There were, as I said, a number of opportunities that the subject in this matter, the defendant in this matter, was given to retreat, to take a different path. He chose at every step to continue.
MARGARET WARNER: Since Mohamud’s arrest, leaders in the Muslim and Somali-American communities in Oregon have spoken out to condemn the alleged bomb attempt. But someone set a fire Sunday at an Islamic center in nearby Corvallis, where Mohamud had attended services. The FBI began an arson investigation and police stepped up patrols around other Islamic sites in the area.
And for more, we are now joined by Maxine Bernstein of the Oregonian newspaper. She has been reporting on this case since Friday’s arrest.
Maxine, welcome. A member of your reporting team was in court today. What can you tell us about it? What was heard from Mohamud and his — or his lawyer?
MAXINE BERNSTEIN, The Oregonian: Well, it was a brief court appearance. He appeared for about 15 minutes. He was let in, from what I understand, with his angles shackled. He wore a light blue shirt.
And he spoke quietly with his defense attorney and answered the judge’s questions very — in a very quiet voice: “Yes, Your Honor.”
He was arraigned on the one charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, and he pleaded not guilty to the charge. There were — it was a packed courtroom, some supporters. There was immediate family and friends. And others had to be — couldn’t get into the courtroom because there was no more space.
But, afterwards, his federal public defender questioned whether this 19-year-old man was essentially groomed to do — to commit a crime by federal officials. And he raised the question of whether federal officials had entrapped his client.
MARGARET WARNER: What can you tell us in terms of the picture that’s emerged of this young man, Mohamud, that’s emerged after — not only in the affidavit or the criminal complaint, which has been out since Friday, but in the reporting you and others have done with people who have known him?
MAXINE BERNSTEIN: Well, some reporting from a number of reporters for The Oregonian who spent the weekend speaking with friends and family, neighbors, it’s a picture of a conflicted young man.
He came to this country with his family in the mid-’90s. And he lived in a suburb of Portland, attended school, graduated from high school, was described as a polite, intelligent young man who liked sports, basketball. He started last fall taking courses at Oregon State University.
But yet some members of the mosque near the university said they felt he was troubled in recent months. And there was evidence, at least in the affidavit that was filed in court, that he felt somewhat betrayed by his family. And there was clear evidence, at least from his statements that were recorded by federal officials, of his radical beliefs and intent to participate in a violent jihad.
So, there’s this conflict, extreme conflict, between his friends and neighbors who — who didn’t necessarily see that side of him.
MARGARET WARNER: What — what led the FBI to start actually monitoring his e-mails in, I think, it was mid-2009? Was it, as some have reported, that his parents said something to authorities?
MAXINE BERNSTEIN: Well, there are some reports that his father had contacted the Department of Homeland Security. And there’s nothing in the affidavits that referred to that.
What we do know is that he was on a no-fly list. He had tried in June of this year to leave Oregon and fly and find a fishing job in Alaska. And he wasn’t allowed to. And, at that time, FBI officials interviewed him, and learned that he apparently, according to the affidavit, that he intended to obtain money from this fishing job, and his main — his prime goal was to travel to Yemen afterwards.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Maxine — oh, let me interrupt you, because we’re almost out of time.
MAXINE BERNSTEIN: Sure.
MARGARET WARNER: I know this is the point of real debate, which is, from the affidavit, where is the balance between elements of the plot that were supposed to be his idea and what the FBI undercover agents who eventually befriended him, what they suggested?
MAXINE BERNSTEIN: Well, according to FBI officials, they gave him several other options along the way.
Now, they had been in contact with him since June of 2010. And they met in person. They e-mailed. They had e-mails with him. And these undercover federal informatives were — they say, were giving Mr. Mohamud several options, other options than this alleged bomb plot.
They suggested, for example, that he finish his schooling and use that money to travel overseas in the future, or as he could continue praying, et cetera. And each step of the way, they allege that he was clear on being involved in an operational — having an operational participation in a violent jihad.
Of course, his defense — his defense attorneys are going to work to challenge that and suggest that what FBI officials were doing were — was grooming him to participate in this plot.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, more to come. Maxine Bernstein, thank you so much.
MAXINE BERNSTEIN: Thank you.