PORTLAND, Ore. — An early FBI assessment of a teenager agents thought was a potential terrorist threat has given ammunition to both prosecution and defense attorneys in an Oregon terrorism trial.
Mohamed Mohamud was 17-years-old in the summer of 2009, when he captured the FBI’s attention by corresponding with a Saudi Arabian man sought by Interpol on terrorism charges.
In an email assessment of Mohamud, FBI Special Agent Isaac DeLong told colleagues Mohamud was “conflicted and manipulable,” but his writings for an online English-language jihadi magazine praising 9/11 concerned him.
“(Mohamud) wants to have it both ways,” DeLong wrote in the November 2009 email, saying Mohamud wanted to both live under hardline Islamic rule while also enjoying the college party scene of binge drinking and smoking marijuana.
Mohamud is accused of attempting to detonate a bomb at a Portland Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in November 2010.
DeLong testified Wednesday under cross examination in Mohamud’s terrorism trial that Mohamud’s attempt to live two lives meant he could be easily manipulated. He wrote that Mohamud seemed to have left his radical Islamic leanings behind when he went to college at Oregon State University in August 2009.
But DeLong said the bureau also worried that Mohamud’s previous writing and the fact that his concerned father contacted the FBI worrying that Mohamud had been “brainwashed” led agents to believe he could become a threat.
DeLong’s initial suggestion was to try to “pitch” Mohamud on being an informant for the FBI on the Corvallis Muslim community. It’s unclear whether that suggestion was ever seriously entertained.
DeLong’s testimony also revealed that FBI agents in the Charlotte, N.C., office tracking now-deceased al-Qaida operative Samir Khan were the first to identify Mohamud as a potential threat because of communication between the two.
The FBI was tracking Khan — who was killed in a drone strike with then-al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki — when they came across Mohamud’s emails to him in early 2009. They tracked down Mohamud’s IP address to a Portland suburb and identified him. When he cropped up on the bureau’s radar again, DeLong said he was able to rely on that information to identify Mohamud.
DeLong also said that a team of FBI agents followed Mohamud during his freshman year of college, monitoring his phone calls, text messages and emails, along with video and photo surveillance.
At any time, federal public defender Steve Wax asked, did Mohamud write or say anything concerning a potential terrorist attack? DeLong said he hadn’t.
Earlier on Wednesday, defense attorney Lisa Hay tried to draw into question the accuracy and selectiveness of the written records made by the FBI agent who headed up the undercover investigation into Mohamud.
The records are crucial to establishing the initial face-to-face contact between Mohamud and an undercover agent posing as a jihadi.
That meeting would help establish Mohamud’s mindset before an FBI sting operation targeting him swung into high gear and culminated with his arrest.
His attorneys are trying to show he was not predisposed to terrorism before he met two men — actually undercover agents — who promised him the chance to work for al-Qaida and carry out an act of terrorism in the U.S.
The FBI has said the undercover agent attempted to tape-record the original face-to-face meeting with Mohamud on July 30, 2010, but the battery in his recording device failed.
After the meeting, the undercover agent’s FBI handler, Elvis Chan, took notes and wrote a summary about it. The FBI learned on Aug. 2, 2010, that the recorder did not function, but Chan said he wasn’t told about it.
He destroyed his notes on Aug. 3, 2010, leaving only his written summary.
During Mohamud’s terrorism trial on Wednesday, defense attorney Lisa Hay questioned why Chan chose not to record the agent telling Mohamud that he was in competition with five other men to help carry out a purported al-Qaida plot, a fact that Hay asserted in previous questioning could coerce a naive 18-year-old into getting involved with the plot.
Hay said Chan neglected to include facts from other calls and meetings that would be helpful to Mohamud’s defense, including Mohamud expressing a desire to go overseas instead of carrying out the plot, and another occasion when he wanted to “back out.”
Chan did note the small talk between Mohamud and the undercover agent, including details on where Mohamud went to school and what he was studying.
“I summarized what I believed to be the highlights of the meeting,” Chan said.
“And the highlights for you were the small talk,” Hay replied.