Agency of Fear
It’s nearing dusk on November 26, 2010. More than 25,000 people have gathered in a light rain at Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, Oregon to watch the annual lighting of the holiday tree, a 100-foot-tall Douglas-fir logged from the Willamette National Forest.
Three men in a nearby hotel room have just finished eating a take-out pizza. The TV turned to a local news channel, which is covering holiday celebration. The men spread towels on the floor and say an Islamic prayer, asking that Allah bless their operation. The men pat each other on the back, leave the room and walk to their vehicle, a white van.
One of the men is a teenager named Mohamed. The other two men are older. One is called Youssef. The leader of the group is a man in his fifties who known only as Hussein. Hussein is a bomb-maker for al-Qaeda. He’s been making explosives for three decades. Their operation to set off a massive bomb in the heart of Portland has been in the works for more than three months.
Hussein unlocks the doors to the van and takes the driver’s seat. The young Mohamed, who is wearing a hard-hat, slides into the passenger seat. In the cargo hold of the van sit six 55-gallon blue drums filled with nearly 2,000 pounds of fertilizer-based explosives. Each drum has an explosive cap. They are linked together by a detonation cord, which runs up to a toggle switch.
As Hussein pulls the van, which reeks of diesel fuel, out into traffic, the bomb-maker begins to chant loudly in Arabic. Hussein parks the van on Yamhill Street, directly across from Pioneer Square. He orders Mohamed to flip the toggle switch, arming the bombs.
The two men get out of the van and scurry down Broadway Street and then up to 10th avenue, where Youssef is waiting for them in an SUV. They drive to the Portland train station, where they drop Youssef off, and then park the vehicle in a lot a couple of blocks away.
Hussein mutters “Allahu Akbar.” Then turns to his teenage sidekick and asks, “You read?” Mohamed nods his head, “Ready.”
The bomb-maker hands Mohamed a cell phone. The phone is meant to activate the bomb. He reads out a number. Mohammed nervously enters the digits on the phone. There is no explosion.
Hussein suggests that the signal may be poor and that they should step out of the van. The two men get out of the van and Mohamed reenters the numbers. The phone begins to ring. Then dozens of voices shatter the tense scene, screaming “FBI! FBI!” The two men are ordered to the ground. As Hussein is being handcuffed, he struggles with the federal agents and continues to chant “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” When Mohamed spits at an officer, Hussein says, “I love that.”
The federal agents have arrived, it seems, just in the nick of time. Their felicitous intervention has disrupted a sophisticated terrorist operation and saved thousands of innocent lives. The bomb plotters had been caught and trundled off to prison: another triumphant day in the battle to protect the homeland from al-Qaeda’s terror cells.
But wait a minute. Almost nothing about this scenario was true. The cell phone wasn’t connected to the toggle switch. The detonation cords weren’t wired to an explosive device. The blue drums weren’t filled with diesel-saturated fertilizer, but harmless grass seed. Mohamed wasn’t a member of al Qaeda. Of Somali origin, he was a troubled college dropout from Beaverton, Oregon, home of Nike. Youssef wasn’t a member of al Qaeda. Hussein was not one of al Qaeda’s top bomb makers. Youssef and Hussein were not really arrested and neither was charged with being part of a terrorist plot. Youssef and Hussein were both federal agents.
The bomb plot itself was not an al Qaeda idea. It was hatched by the FBI. Young Mohamed Mohamud did not seek out the bomb plotters; they found him and seduced the young man into joining their conspiracy. The teenager did not build the bomb. The fake bomb was actually constructed by John Hallock, who later testified that he designed the device for “maximum effect.” Mohamed did not select the target. The order to activate the device came from a federal agent. The order to detonate the bomb also came from a federal agent. From conception to execution, the infamous Portland Christmas Tree Bomb Plot was scripted by the FBI.
Yet it was Mohamed Mohamud who was arrested, slapped with federal terrorism and conspiracy changes, subjected to a bruising trial in January and convicted on all counts by a jury that deliberated less than six hours.
After the verdict was read, the gleeful FBI agents and federal prosecutors hailed their victorious sting operation, braying that they had rid the streets of a dangerous jihadist. But this was not a government sting. It was a textbook case of entrapment, where federal agents recruited a disaffected kid, whose only previous legal entanglement had been an unproven allegation of date rape during his freshman year at college, into a fake bomb plot that they had concocted.
Mohamed Mohamud was not a terrorist when the FBI began spying on him while he was still in high school. In the two years he was under FBI surveillance, he did not commit a terrorist act or join a terrorist group. It took the FBI to recruit him into a terrorist cell, indoctrinate him into terrorist ideology and lure him into participating in its bomb plot.
Our government increasingly fantasizes about blowing things up here at home. This is the sixth case where the FBI has invented a bomb plot aimed at snagging hapless, often alienated, individuals who were not terrorists until they were enticed into joining the agency’s own conspiracy. So what is the point of these operations? To scoop up a handful of estranged, young Muslim men? To make suburban Americans feel safer?
Hardly. The point is fear. The government needs to keep the public in a state of terror anxiety in order to justify its own ever-encroaching powers.
So, Mohamed sits in prison. The Constitution lies in tatters. Fear rules the land.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book (with Joshua Frank) is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).