On November 4, 2010, a small cell of al-Qaeda operatives convened at a Starbucks in Corvallis, Oregon, to review the details of their plot to kill 25,000 people in downtown Portland. The cell had three members: Hussein, an explosives expert, Youssef, a businessman turned jihadist recruiter, and Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somali-American college student.
The would-be terrorists met earlier that year, after one of Mohamud’s friends from the mosque recommended him to the Council, a secret jihadist organization that scoured the globe for potential operators. Hussein and Youssef flew to Oregon to meet the teen, whom they called “a jewel in the rough.” Together, the three conceived a plot to detonate an 1,800-pound bomb during Portland’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony, a yearly Black Friday tradition in Pioneer Square, the city’s main plaza. Mohamud chose the target. Hussein and Youssef designed and built the bomb.
Now was time for a test run. After meeting at the coffeeshop, the group drove to a remote spot in the countryside. There, Hussein showed Mohamud a smaller version of the device: a backpack filled with three pounds of explosives. They placed the bomb in a tree and walked away. Hussein handed Mohamud a cell phone and asked him to dial a number. The teenager obeyed — and a small explosion rattled the last yellow leaves on the trees.
Later that day, the cell returned to Mohamud’s apartment in Corvallis to record his farewell video. The teenager put on a white robe, a white and red headdress, and a camouflage jacket. He began to read his manifesto to the camera. “For as long as you threaten our security, your people will not remain safe,” Mohamud said. “As your soldiers target our civilians, we will not fail to do so. Did you think that you could invade a Muslim land and we would not invade you?”
Two weeks later, on November 26, 2010, Youssef picked up Mohamud from a friend’s house in Portland. They met with Hussein and headed to a parking spot near the Comcast building, where the operators showed Mohamud a large white van. Hussein opened the side door, revealing six 55-gallon drums filled with fertilizer. On the front seat was the detonation mechanism: a cell phone, a 9-volt battery, and a switch. The whole van smelled of diesel.
“It’s beautiful,” Mohamud said.
The three headed to a hotel in downtown Portland, where they prayed and ordered a pizza. They turned on the TV and watched the crowds march into Pioneer Square under light rain.
Around sunset, Hussein and Mohamud drove the bomb to the chosen corner. Mohamud flipped the toggle switch attached to the detonator, arming the bomb. Youssef picked up Mohamud and Hussein in a different car and drove them to Union Station. As the three left the scene, Mohamud said he thought he saw his mother heading towards the ceremony.
After dropping off Youssef at the train station, Hussein and Mohamud parked in a nearby garage. The explosives expert handed the teen a cell phone. The teenager dialed the detonator number. Nothing happened.
“Why don’t you get out of the car and try again?” Hussein said.
Mohamud did as he was told. As he pressed the last button, he heard a group of people running at him.
“Don’t move!” someone yelled.
Suddenly, Mohamud was on the ground. He could hear Hussein screaming, “Allahu akbar!” — God is great — over and over again. After the third or fourth time, the 17 arresting officers started to laugh.
The bomb Mohamud had tried to detonate was fake. The test explosion was staged. There was no secret council of militant leaders seeking a gifted Somali-American teenager to wage jihad. Youssef and Hussein were undercover FBI agents.