Once again, the troubling question arises: How can someone come to these shores, accept the hospitality and bounty of a new country, swear fealty to its people and Constitution, then plan to commit mass murder in the name of religion?
And once again, leaders of a local mosque – this time in Portland, Oregon – warily attempt to reassure their fellow Americans that one disturbed and dangerous young Muslim does not speak for their community. The alleged plot interrupted by the FBI was shocking even in an age in which we have become inured to indiscriminate terror: Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somali immigrant, was arrested Friday night on charges that he tried to detonate a van he believed was filled with explosives in the middle of a city square during a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
Was he really prepared to kill so many people, especially children, an undercover FBI agent asked Mohamud. "I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured," he reportedly replied.
And so, in this holiday season, Christians and Muslims – and Americans who are Jewish, or secular or spiritual in some other way – are asking themselves: Where does such hatred come from?
The geographical answer is Somalia, a failed state that has been at the mercy of warlords and murderous zealots for all of Mohamed Osman Mohamud's short life. The teenager was born in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 1991, the year its brutal civil war was launched. He was brought to this country with his family when he was in elementary school and joined a fast-growing Somali community in Portland.
One of the most hideous features of the Somali civil war is how children are pressed into service as fighters and indoctrinated with a merciless ideology. A detailed look into the dehumanizing effects of such recruitment appeared in The Washington Post on Saturday morning -- before the story in Portland had broken. The Post profiled one such teenage fighter, Abdul Qadir Mohammed, and his transformation from innocent boy to violent jihadist.
It is clear that the men recruiting Somali boys as child soldiers do not stop their efforts just because those boys' families bring them to America. On Saturday, Oman Jamal, first secretary of the Somali mission for the United Nations, told reporters that some 20 Somali youths living in Minneapolis have been recruited by terrorist organizations and summoned to Somalia to fight for a terrorist organization.
"At some point in his life, someone must have put this threat idea in his mind," Jamal told the Portland Oregonian in reference to Mohamud. "We want to know who that is. We want to deal with the root of the problem."
Those roots may run deep. Most recently, Mohamud was active at the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis while attending classes at Oregon State. Yosof Wanly, the imam at the center, describes Mohamud as being a typical college student who attended campus athletic events, drank an occasional beer, and enjoyed rap music and popular culture – and who didn't attend services at the mosque regularly. In other words, he didn't appear particularly radical. [The center also issued a strongly worded condemnation denouncing "this horrible plot ... that does not in any way represent Islam or Muslims." ]
But the FBI affidavit filed Friday pursuant to Mohamud's arrest quoted the suspect as telling an undercover agent that he had been committed to jihad since he was 15 years of age. Students atWestview High School in Portland recall a student whose anti-American feelings were intense, if ill-defined.
A former classmate of Mohamud's named Andy Stull told Portland's Channel 8 KGW Newsabout a dispute the two boys had over a messy locker. "The main thing was, the way he said he hated Americans," recalled Stull. "It was serious. He looked me in the eye and had this look in his eye, like it was his determination in life – 'I hate Americans!'" Stull recalls being sufficiently worried that he reported the encounter to school counselors, but he said he never heard any follow-up.
Another former high school classmate who asked not to be identified said that for a physics class project Mohamud chose to detail the workings of a rocket-propelled grenade. "It was just weird about how someone would choose that, you know," the classmate told KGW.
So far, Mohamud's family has not spoken publicly about the arrest, but some in the close-knit Somali community in Portland have come forward. The suspect's father is described as an active member of the community and his mother as someone who does not wear a hijab, signifying a family life that was tolerant and progressive. "This is a family everyone looks up to," a 24-year-old immigrant identified only as "Ali" told the Oregonian. "They are the most educated modern Somalis. I'll bet this is their worst nightmare, too."
Amin Dawid, another Somali resident of Portland, told the paper that Mohamud wasted the opportunities he had been given as a young citizen of the United States. "He fell into something wrong,"said Dawid. "We stand with the family, but we reject all kind of violence."
That sentiment was echoed by leaders of the Portland Islamic community as well. After Mohamud was arrested on Friday, Arthur Balizan, FBI special agent in charge of Oregon, called local Muslim leaders to apprise them of the plot, the arrest and the impending news storm. "There was a tone of apprehension," Balizan said, "and also a tone of sadness that this had happened."
At a Saturday press conference held outside Portland City Hall, local Muslim leaders joined in denouncing the plot and expressing gratitude to law enforcement authorities for breaking it up before any loss of life could occur. "We condemn strongly any act of violence, any act that would target innocent people," said Imam Mikal Shabazz of the Oregon Islamic Chaplain Organization.
"He's not alone," Shahriar Ahmed of the Bilal Mosque in Beaverton, added in reference to Mohamud. "But that is the exact type of mentality that we are trying to stand against – Christian, Muslim, Jew and reasonable people – globally."
Ahmed also added a personal note, saying he was speaking not just as a Muslim, but as a father. His own daughter, he said, was among the thousands at Pioneer Courthouse Square for the Friday evening tree lighting ceremony that Mohamed Osman Mohamud intended to turn into a sea of suffering. "God forbid this would have happened," Ahmed said. "She would have been dead."