Conviction in Portland bomb plot revives debate over FBI terrorism stings

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The conviction of a 21-year-old Oregon resident who tried to detonate what he thought was a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony has renewed controversy over the FBI's sting operations.

Some question whether those convicted in FBI terrorism stings actually posed significant threats, or if the FBI provided them with opportunities for mass destruction that they wouldn't otherwise have. The FBI says it's being proactive--as an article published last year in its monthly bulletin put it, "it no longer proves sufficient to solve crimes after people have committed them."

In an interview, Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, said the difference between "someone who's a kid out there looking for a cause, excitement and trouble, versus somebody's who's really committed to destruction in the name of jihad" is not well understood.

Regardless, if a defendant has shown a willingness to detonate a lethal bomb, "juries cannot see over that," she said.

Mohamed Mohamud, a U.S. citizen originally from Somalia, faces up to life in prison for his role in the Oregon plot.

He had exchanged about 150 emails with an al Qaeda terrorist in 2009, and he tried to go to Pakistan to take part in terrorist activities, the FBI says. An undercover FBI agent contacted Mohamud and pretended to be a member of a terrorist group.

Mohamud told the agent he wanted to set off a bomb at a public Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore., but that he needed help.

Undercover FBI agents warned Mohamud that many people would die and told him he did not have to go through with it, but he decided to continue. The agents and Mohamud detonated a real bomb in a remote location in Oregon as a trial run. On Nov. 26, 2010, Mohamud tried to detonate an 1,800-pound fake bomb near the Christmas tree lighting and was arrested.

Michael German, who was an FBI agent for 16 years and is now senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview that some convicted in FBI stings couldn't have carried out significant attacks without the help of the FBI.

Doing so requires resources and connections that few have. But in stings, the government can provide "military grade explosives and missiles, and things like that, that sit in a court room and are hard to ignore," he said.

The sting operations may also detract government resources from more likely threats, German said.

Mohamud was convicted Jan. 31. In a statement that day, Lisa Monaco, the assistant attorney general for national security, said, "When an individual concocts a plan to commit mass violence...law enforcement has an obligation to take action to protect the public."

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