Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, was arrested a few days ago for attempting to bomb Portland's annual Christmas tree lighting. 10,000 people packed the streets.
"I want whoever is attending the event," Mohamud declared to an undercover FBI agent posing as a terrorist, "to leave either dead or injured." When the agent reminded him that "a lot of children" would be present, Mohamud responded that his target wasn't children in particular but rather "just a huge mass that will … be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays." Gory details were not spared; the agent told Mohamud "that he was going to see body parts and blood. Mohamud responded, 'I want to see that, that's, that's what I want for these people.'" (Ibid., p. 29.)
And so, the Christmas tree, an international symbol of peace and goodwill, turns into a death trap. A shock, a surprise, if there ever was one. Mohamud's choice of targets is a textbook case of the cult of contradiction analyzed in The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion.
The surprise lives on in Portland's reaction. "It's very difficult for me to comprehend how a young man who this country has given great opportunities to could waste those opportunities and be willing to commit a horrific crime," said Portland Police Chief Michael Reese. "It is very sad."
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered -- the old song got it right. We've seen the police chief's words before, many times. Surprise has long been the refrain whenever hometown terrorists strike in the U.S. or, for that matter, anywhere in the Western world. Case in point:
No real explanation, the biggest conundrum, baffling: the British journalist Alan Cowell expressed the lingering shock created by the British Muslims, most of whom were of Pakistani descent, who carried out the 2005 London bombings: "But, for many Britons the mystery is why a handful among those same young men -- with potential access to the same schools, movies, sports and setbacks as any other young Briton in the post-industrial era -- should congregate secretly to plot mayhem and self-destruction." (Alan Cowell, "Perceived humiliation links cricket and plots," International Herald Tribune, August 26/27, 2006. See The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion, p. 33.)
Facts are still coming in on the Mohamud affair. We can only speculate:
For starters, is Mohamud middle class? If so, the analysis in The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion becomes pertinent.
(i) In the larger sense of the term, i.e., middle class as anyone who is in a marginal/intermediate/transitional position, the answer is an unequivocal "yes." He left Somalia when he was five; he is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Add to that transition a more recent one: his parents, Mariam and Osman Barre, separated last year. A third transition: in 2010, Mohamud started as an engineering student at Oregon State University. An accumulation of transitions and/or marginal conditions is the first element in my definition of "terrorist" presented in The Source of Terrorism and posted on various websites (among them http://criminaljusticeonlineblog.com/archives/terrorism-the-best-definition-of-terrorism-in-light-of-9-11/.) The preference of terrorists-in-the-making for hard sciences like engineering, incidentally, was highlighted in this blog (Nov. 9 post); it has proven to be a useful indicator for locating future al-Qaeda operatives.
(ii) As for middle class in the sense of the socio-economic middle class, at the moment we have only hearsay. The New York Times reported, "Two acquaintances of Mr. Mohamud’s family said that Mr. Mohamud’s father worked for Intel, which has offices in Hillsboro, a Portland suburb. They said they thought he worked as an engineer." And Stephanie Napier, a former neighbor, described Mohamud as a "quiet kid," who came from a "normal, middle class family …"
Conclusion: initial indications are that Mohamud is a classic middle class rebel. The fact that he is only 19 is compelling without being surprising. As Albert Camus pointed out over 50 years ago, "la révolte est adolescente." No translation needed. (L'Homme Révolté, Gallimard, 1951, p. 111.)
Brandon Guffey, 20, a childhood buddy of Mohamud:
"This is the biggest surprise. Someone I'd spent all these years with. Then you find out he's trying to blow people up."
Along with some other old friends, Guffey questioned how much Mohamud may have been had been led to the attempted bombing by the FBI.
"From what I know of the guy, it almost seems like this whole thing could've been avoided if someone from the beginning had said, 'Nah, dude, that's not what you wanna do.'"
Nah, dude: Brandon, you raise a crucial issue. Time and resources spent in FBI undercover agents working to gain Mohamud's confidence, preparing a trial explosion for him to witness in the woods, furnishing him with money for an apartment and parts for a bomb, then arresting him after he pushed the button to explode a fake bomb in a van: could all that fancy footwork have been avoided simply by talking with him?
To talk meaningfully with a middle class rebel, one must know what to say. In their reported conversations with Mohamud, the FBI gave no indication whatsoever that they knew what to say. Two preliminary points:
(1) It's not that the undercover agents were at a loss for words. They told Mohamud that even if he changed his mind at the last moment, "we'd be disappointed, but you always have a choice. You understand? With us you always have a choice." ("Complaint," p. 20.) On the day of the attack, the agents asked him if he "wanted to go through with the attack. Mohamud twice replied that he was sure he wanted to go through with the attack." (Ibid., p. 34.)
Unfortunately, hints, suggestions, and insinuations that other options existed, seem to have been made more to create a foundation for beating a potential entrapment charge against the FBI than to talk Mohamud out of committing a crime.
(2) The core of that foundation is in the legal complaint. The FBI stated repeatedly that Mohamud was determined from the outset to carry out the bombing. The undercover agent told him, "A bomb is a very serious matter … this attack must come from [his heart]." Six days later, Mohamud replied in an email that "he had prayed for guidance and, when he woke up, 'his [faith] was sky high, for no apparent reason. so I see it as a sign [god willing] that the trafficl ight is green lol ….'" ("Complaint," pp. 20-1. Original typos included.)
Elsewhere, Mohamud "continued to show his enthusiasm for the planned attack: 'it's gonna be a fireworks show … a spectacular show … New York Times will give it two thumbs up …'" (Ibid., p. 26.) When he saw the bomb which the agents had assembled for him out of parts he had purchased, Mohamud smiled and pronounced it to be "beautiful." (Ibid., p. 34.)
Mohamud, in short, is pictured as recalcitrant, incorrigible. But it is precisely his total commitment, his absolute certainty, that gives the game away. It is where the FBI faltered.
As discussed in this blog (Oct. 19 post) and in The Source of Terrorism, absolute certainty is a conscious manifestation of unconscious ambivalence. It is also a defining characteristic of the middle class rebel.
Brandon, I return to your idea: Nah, dude ... To determine if it is right or wrong, we must answer a question that arose in the above detour: Was Mohamud a lost cause? The FBI says yes. We've seen the horrifying extremes he uttered and was prepared to realize.
The truth is that, in middle class rebellion, an extreme is always accompanied by its equal and opposite extreme; it is the tension between them that gives extremism life, that makes it what it is. Usually, one of the extremes, e.g., exaggerated conformity to the American Way of Life, is latent. To make it manifest, certain buttons must be pushed. But instead of finding them and working with Mohamud's absolute certainty, the FBI agents at best gave in to it, at worse furthered it for their own purposes.
What difference does it make? Well, apart from the cost of the elaborate sting operation, Mohamud now will probably spend the rest of his life behind bars. The last time I looked, we taxpayers will foot the bill. It may come as a surprise, but in 1995, the yearly cost per federal prison inmate was estimated at $21,995. Go figure. Talk about being stung.
Make no mistake. I applaud the FBI's ability to identify Mohamud as a potential terrorist; he was definitely a "no fly" guy. It's simply that I would have preferred knowledgeable conversations with him instead of paying millions of dollars for, well … what, exactly? With proper handling, he might even have turned into a valuable agent for us. Now we'll never know.
Starting from intelligence, the FBI agents went to cleverness -- not to knowledge. If they had a better understanding of the middle class rebel/terrorist mentality, probably nothing would have happened in Portland. In that case, the biggest surprise of all would have been no surprise at all.