Portland bomb plot sets off bigotry

December 2, 2010

Andrea Hektor examines the FBI's questionable case against a Muslim youth accused of terrorism--and the unquestionable bigotry that followed the media hysteria.

THE FBI is taking credit for thwarting a major terrorist attack with the arrest of a 19-year-old Somali-born U.S. citizen, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, after he allegedly tried to ignite a van full of what he believed to be explosives at the annual post-Thanksgiving Christmas tree lighting in downtown Portland, Ore.

But there are many unanswered questions about how far the FBI went in luring Mohamud into an act that he couldn't have planned, much less carried out, on his own.

What isn't in doubt, however, is the ugly wave of Islamophobia that followed in the wake of the media's hysterical coverage of the supposed plot--apparently leading to an arson attack on the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in nearby Corvallis, Ore., where Mohamud occasionally worshipped.

On November 29, Mohamud appeared in court to be officially charged with attempting to detonate explosives in a van parked next to "Portland's living room"--Pioneer Square--which was filled with thousands of people taking part in a tree-lighting event.

The Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, Ore., damaged by arson
The Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, Ore., damaged by arson

Almost all the information about the supposed plot circulating in the media comes from an FBI affidavit released just hours after the alleged bombing attempt was foiled--suggesting the authorities had plenty of time to prepare for their moment of triumph over "terrorism."

Indeed, the affidavit says both the rented van full of fake explosives and the cell phone detonator system that supposed to set off the bomb were provided to Mohamud by the FBI. The document also describes months of discussions between Mohamud and FBI agents working undercover, including a trip the teenager took with an agent to a remote location in Lincoln County, Oregon, where the two detonated trial explosives in preparation for the downtown attack.

As for evidence of Mohamud's connections to "international terrorism," these seem to amount to his stated desire to leave the U.S. and go to another country, most likely Pakistan, where he would "fight violent jihad," according to the affidavit. Another crucial piece of "evidence": three articles Mohamud wrote on "fitness and jihad" for the online magazine Jihad Recollections, in which he described ways to prepare the body and mind for jihad.

Nevertheless, the FBI and the Obama administration are trumpeting the arrest as a major success for the "war on terror."

For its part, the right wing is exploiting the media attention focused on Mohamud to continue the racist tirades and fear-mongering that reached a fever pitch in the fall with the controversy over the Park 51 project in New York City to build an Islamic cultural center. For example, in an article titled "Just another bomb-plotting jihadist yelling 'Allahu akbar!'" right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin claimed "violent jihad" is "a fundamental tenet of legions and legions of Muslims worldwide."

Once again, the rhetoric of hate has had real consequences for Arabs and Muslims. Within 24 hours of the attack, an arsonist set fire to the Islamic center in Corvallis, a town about two hours' drive away from Portland and home to Oregon State University, where Mohamud had taken a few classes. According to the center's Imam, Mohamud didn't regularly attend the mosque, but did come once or twice a month.

Thankfully, there has been an outpouring of support for the Islamic Center from community members in Corvallis. By Monday, a collection of flowers and cards had appeared in front of the men's entrance to the mosque.

"This shouldn't happen here," community member Laurie Hurst said while dropping off a card and potted plant at the center. "It shouldn't happen anywhere, but Corvallis is a wonderful, open community...I want these folks who worship here to know that this is not Corvallis...it's some redneck idiot."

A candlelight vigil at the mosque was planned for November 30, with more than 300 people committed to attending according to posts on the Web. In Portland, local activists are discussing the possibility of holding solidarity vigils or othere demonstrations.

THE DETAILS of the alleged plot need a more careful examination than mainstream media outlets gave to them in the days following Mohamud's arrest.

Listening to media reports would have been almost comical if the consequences weren't so serious: The FBI arrested a man for trying to detonate a bomb--that it provided. The FBI monitored a call to a supposed cell phone detonator--that it provided. Mohamud and an FBI agent had previously detonated explosives in Lincoln County--that it provided. Mohamud was even driven by the FBI from Corvallis to a hotel in a Portland suburb the day of the alleged attack.

At Mohamud's arraignment, his lawyers brought up the issue of entrapment. Steven Wax, the federal public defender in Oregon, told reporters, "One of the issues that will be coming up in this case involves whether, and how, he was directed by those government agents." Mohamud's defense team question why the government waited so long to take him into custody, and whether he can get a fair trial after the FBI allowed him to continue with the plot up to the very point when he allegedly tried to detonate the bomb.

Not only did the FBI provide all the materials for the supposed bomb, but it helped Mohamud pay rent. In fact, discussions about the plan to set off the bomb only occurred after Mohamud was unable to temporarily move to Alaska for work because he was on a federal no-fly list. Accounts from family and friends indicate that Mohamud was a quiet, smart young man who was upset about the September 11 attacks in New York City.

Regardless of Mohamud's intentions, the actions of the FBI need to be called into question. Would Mohamud have become so interested in jihad if he had been able to get work in Alaska? Would he have acted on his thoughts of "violent Jihad" if the weapons hadn't been provided to him by the U.S. government?

According to the FBI affidavit, Mohamed stated in a video, "This is a message to those who have wronged themselves and the rights of others...For as long as you threaten our security, your people will not remain safe. As your soldiers target our civilians, we will not help to do so."

This raises another question: If the U.S. wasn't carrying out two occupations in Muslim countries, would Mohamud have wanted to take revenge?

Similarly, whatever Mohamud is or isn't guilty of, we need to stand up against the atmosphere of racist fear and hatred being fomented in the U.S. Opponents of Islamophobia have confronted confronted the right in New York City, Gainesville, Fla., and elsewhere. The same challenge needs to be organized in Oregon.

As long as the fear-mongering continues, we must continue to stand up to any attacks on Arabs and Muslims, whenever and wherever they occur.

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