Eerie similarities in Portland, Baltimore bombing suspects

December 14, 2010

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) On Nov. 27, a young Muslim named Antonio Martinez
phoned a friend in a panic.


The two men had spent weeks planning to bomb a military recruiting
office in suburban Baltimore, the government alleges. And now there was
news that the FBI -- using undercover operatives -- had arrested a
teenager in the attempted bombing of Portland's Christmas tree lighting
ceremony.


Now an agitated Martinez, who went by the name Muhammad Hussain, was
having doubts about an Afghani man who had joined their scheme.


"I'm not falling for no b.s.," Martinez told his friend.


But it appears he did.


The friend Martinez phoned was an FBI informant, and the "Afghani
brother" -- who eventually presented Martinez with a fake but
realistic-looking explosive to cement the government sting -- was an FBI
agent.


The 21-year-old Martinez was arrested Dec. 8 after he pressed the
buttons of a cell phone to ignite the harmless "bomb" inside an SUV
parked at a military recruitment center.


The government's cases against Martinez and Mohamed Osman Mohamud,
the 19-year-old student accused of trying to kill Christmas revelers in
Portland the day after Thanksgiving, are part of a spike in home-grown
terrorist attempts brought to light in the last year.


The unrelated plots in Portland and Baltimore were allegedly put
together simultaneously, 2,600 miles apart, by two men with astonishing
similarities:


Both are foreign-born, reportedly from good families concerned about
their radical beliefs. Both are enthusiasts of Internet sites devoted to
jihad, and both cultivated beliefs that the United States is an enemy of
Islam. Both men identified their own bombing targets and turned down
multiple offers to back out of their plans, according to FBI affidavits.


The two cases, made public in the space of 12 days, join three
others in recent years in which defendants were caught in elaborate
bomb-plot stings arranged by federal agents, said Karen J. Greenberg,
executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York
University.


"There's only a handful of these cases, but they are more frequent
now than they have been in the past," Greenberg said. "They're more
frequent because this is a strategy the FBI set upon years ago -- and
it's taken them awhile to come to fruition."


Across the nation, legal minds have debated whether such stings
prevent terrorist acts or persuade young men to act on violent impulses.
But one thing is certain about Mohamud and Martinez: Both men spent a
lot of time talking about jihadi violence.


The cases against both men began, in part, on the Internet, where
they expressed fanatical views about holy war. Government prosecutors
are expected to use their exhortations to battle against possible
entrapment defenses, showing that their suspects had predispositions
toward violence before undercover FBI operatives ever met them.


Last year, according to the government, Mohamud wrote an article for
the online publication Jihad Recollections offering preparation tips for
jihadists. He pointed out that Muslims engaging in holy war are
obligated to physically prepare "in order to damage the enemies of Allah
as much as possible."


On the afternoon of Sept. 29, Martinez -- using creative spelling on
his Muhammad Hussain Facebook account -- wrote, "the sword is cummin the
reign of oppression is about 2 cease." He followed up two days later
with this: "Any 1 who opposes ALLAH and HIS Prophet Peace.Be.Upon.Him I
hate u with all my heart."


An undercover informant working for the FBI soon drew the bureau's
attention to Martinez's Facebook comments. He struck up conversations
with Martinez through the social networking site. By Oct. 22, the
government snitch was reporting to his handlers that Martinez had
thought about attacking Army recruiting centers.


"He indicated that if the military continued to kill their Muslim
brothers and sisters, they would need to expand their operation by
killing U.S. Army personnel where they live," according to the FBI's
criminal complaint affidavit. "He stated that jihad is not only in
Afghanistan or Pakistan, but also in the United States."


The FBI document notes that Martinez introduced the informant to at
least three different people he thought could be recruited into their
plot, and all three turned him down. So the FBI sent in one of its own.


On Nov. 26, as Martinez and the government's two undercover
operatives made plans for the attack on the recruiting center, the FBI
in Portland arrested Mohamud in the alleged tree-lighting bomb plot.


News of the Portland arrest reached Martinez the following day in
Baltimore. He met with the undercover FBI informant and told him he
needed to know more about their Afghani friend. But it wasn't long, the
government alleges, before Martinez told the informant he was ready to
go ahead with the bombing.


The bureau apparently wanted to set the hook deeper.


The informant told Martinez that their Afghani friend was unwilling
to meet with them because he was afraid they were setting up him. When
the informant asked what Martinez was going to say to their friend,
Martinez replied that he would say they knew what happened to their
brother in Oregon, and that they "don't work for those people."


When the three men met, according to the affidavit, the Afghani
contact agreed to take part in the bombing and offered Martinez the
chance to back out. But the young man was resolute.


"The path I have chosen," he said, his voice recorded by the FBI,
"is jihad."