PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — There's no dispute that a 19-year-old Muslim college student tried to set off a car bomb at Portland's 2010 Christmas tree lighting ceremony, but how he reached that point is the crux of a trial that began in federal court this week.
A jury of seven men and nine women will decide whether this was a case of the U.S. government preventing the radicalization of a young Somali-American man, or was instead the FBI's coercion of an impressionable, hotheaded braggart into a plan he was otherwise incapable of carrying out.
Mohamed Mohamud's attorneys began to build their case during opening statements Friday, arguing that he was the victim of a sophisticated manipulation by undercover FBI agents.
"In America, we don't create crime," defense attorney Steve Sady said. "The FBI cannot create the very crime they intend to stop. And sometimes, it's just a matter of going too far."
Sady said Mohamud was an impressionable college student who talked big about carrying out terrorism plots but had neither the means nor the experience to follow through.
That changed, Sady said, when undercover FBI agents posing as jihadist co-conspirators provided Mohamud with a fake bomb in November 2010.
Prosecuting attorney Pam Holsinger said Mohamud was on the path to radicalization, and it was only the FBI's intervention that prevented him from committing terrorism in the U.S. or abroad.
Holsinger pointed to a picture of the estimated 25,000 people at the Christmas tree-lighting event.
"Little did they know that the defendant plotted and schemed for months to kill each and every one of them with a massive truck bomb," Holsinger said.
Given multiple chances to reconsider, Mohamud refused, Holsinger said, intent instead on being a soldier in a religious and cultural war with the West.
Even prominent radical Islamic contacts in the Middle East, including the American-born Samir Khan, had to admonish Mohamud against being too violent, Holsinger said.
"Even (Khan) had to tone down the radical and violent message," Holsinger said.
Through 1 1/2 days of jury selection, U.S. District Judge Garr King made his way through a significant portion of the 85-person pool of prospective jurors, several of whom said they had reservations about the FBI's counterterrorism strategy after 9/11, including its sting operations.
It's no surprise in Portland, a city that has a long and uneasy relationship with federal law enforcement. The erroneous prosecution of a Muslim attorney on terrorism charges, the city's withdrawal from an information-sharing task force with the FBI, and the overseas interrogations of two Portland Muslim men have all contributed to a fractious climate.
Sady warned jurors that they would see and hear Mohamud expressing views about the West that they may find "offensive or disgusting," but urged them to put aside their emotions and decide the case based on the law.
Holsinger made reference to some of Mohamud's radical writing and statements he made to undercover agents. Some of what he published online for an English-language al-Qaida publication will be shown to the jury, she said, and he was writing for the publication in February 2009, long before the FBI contacted him.
Dates are critical to the dueling narratives presented by the prosecution and defense. Prosecutors told jurors to focus on Nov. 26, 2010, the day Mohamud is accused of punching numbers into a black Nokia cell phone that he thought would set off a 1,800-pound bomb.
The defense says the crucial date is more than a year earlier: Nov. 9, 2009, the day Mohamud was first contacted by an informant directed by the FBI to feel out his intentions.
Before that day, Sady said, Mohamud wasn't predisposed to terrorism. He was simply an angry, conservative Muslim trying to pull off a double life as a gin-drinking, marijuana-smoking college freshman.
"The FBI agent wrote that in an email," Sady said. "This was an (easily manipulated), impressionable kid."
The trial continues Monday with evidence from the prosecution.
Reach reporter Nigel Duara on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/RSmBei .