PORTLAND—Friends describe Mohamed Osman Mohamud as an average college student who drank an occasional beer and hung out with fraternity friends. In an expression of ambivalence not uncommon among his peers, the Somali-born 19-year-old hadn't declared a major at Oregon State University in Corvallis. He dropped out of school October 6.
But Mohamud knew the path he wanted to take, according to an affidavit. The FBI says that in August, the young Muslim met with an an undercover agent in a Portland hotel and told him he had found the perfect location for a terrorist attack: the city's annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
On Friday, Mohamud parked what he thought was a bomb-laden van near the ceremony and then went to a nearby train station, where he dialed a cell phone that he believed would detonate the vehicle. Instead, federal authorities moved in and arrested him. No one was hurt.
Mohamud is scheduled to appear in court on Monday. It isn't clear if he has a lawyer yet.
Still unexplained is how the young student became so radicalized. Officials said Mohamud had no formal ties to foreign terror groups, although he had reached out to suspected terrorists in Pakistan.
Mohamud graduated from high school in Beaverton, Oregon. Later at Oregon State, Yosof Wanly, imam at the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, said Mohamud was a normal student who went to athletic events, drank the occasional beer and was into rap music and culture.
Wanly said Mohamud was religious but didn't come to the mosque consistently.
FBI agents say they began investigating after receiving a tip from an unidentified person who expressed concern about Mohamud.
Mohamud later told undercover agents that, at the age of 15, he made a prayer for guidance, "about whether I should ... go, you know, and make jihad in a different country or to make like an operation here."
Beginning in August 2009, court documents allege, Mohamud began e-mail communications with a friend overseas who had studied in Oregon, asking how he could travel to Pakistan and join the fight for jihad.
The e-mail exchanges led the FBI to believe that Mohamud's friend in Pakistan "had joined others involved in terrorist activities" and was inviting Mohamud to join him, prosecutors say.
Mohamud tried to board a flight to Kodiak, Alaska, on June 14 of this year from Portland but wasn't allowed to board and was interviewed by the FBI, prosecutors say. Mohamud told the FBI he wanted to earn money fishing and then travel to join "the brothers." He said he had previously hoped to travel to Yemen but had never obtained a ticket or a visa.
Less than two weeks later an agent e-mailed Mohamud, pretending to be affiliated with one of the people overseas whom Mohamud had tried to contact.
Undercover agents then set up a series of face-to-face meetings with Mohamud at hotels in Portland and Corvallis. They persuaded Mohamud they were in contact with a "council" of jihadists that were interested in him, the documents say.
During their first meeting on July 30, Mohamud told an agent there were a number of ways he could help "the cause," ranging from praying five times a day to "becoming a martyr."
Mohamud replied he "thought of putting an explosion together but that he needed help doing so," the documents say.
At a second meeting on Aug. 19 at a Portland hotel, the agent brought another undercover agent, the documents said, and Mohamud told them he had selected Pioneer Courthouse Square for the bombing.
On Nov. 4, in the backcountry along Oregon's coast, agents convinced Mohamud that he was testing an explosive device - although the explosion was controlled by agents rather than the youth.
The affidavit said Mohamud was warned several times about the seriousness of his plan, that women and children could die, and that he could back out.
Prosecutors say after the trip to the backcountry, Mohamud made a video in the presence of one of the undercover agents, putting on clothes he described as "Sheik Osama style:" a white robe, red and white headdress, and camouflage jacket. He read a statement speaking of his dream of bringing "a dark day" on Americans and blaming his family for getting in the way.
"To my parents who held me back from Jihad in the cause of Allah. I say to them ... if you - if you make allies with the enemy, then Allah's power ... will ask you about that on the day of judgment, and nothing that you do can hold me back," he said.
Friday, an agent and Mohamud drove into downtown Portland to the white van that carried six 55-gallon drums with detonation cords and plastic caps, but all of them were inert.
Authorities said they allowed the plot to proceed to obtain evidence to charge the suspect with attempt.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Saturday that President Barack Obama was aware of the FBI operation before Friday's arrest and was assured that the public was not in danger.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have resettled in the United States since their country plunged into lawlessness in 1991, and the U.S. has boosted aid to the country. In August, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment naming 14 people accused of being a deadly pipeline routing money and fighters from the U.S. to al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliated group in Mohamud's native Somalia.
FBI agent E.K. Wilson said there is no apparent connection between the bomb plot in Portland and the investigation he's overseeing into about 20 men who left <Minneapolis to join al-Shabab in Somalia.
Officials have been working with Muslim leaders across the United States, particularly with the Somali community in Minnesota, trying to combat the radicalization.