PORTLAND — At some point just before 5:40 p.m. on Nov. 26, 2010, the illusion that Mohamed Osman Mohamud created was still intact.
He was still, according to prosecutors, an Islamic soldier in a war against the West, ready to kill and maim thousands at a busy Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. He was still, according to friends, a shy, suburban 19-year-old who had written and read a Kwanzaa poem about religious unity with two Christian college students three days before his arrest.
These conflicting lives were juggled, managed, even perfected.
Then, at 5:40 p.m., Mohamud pressed a button on a cellphone he thought would set off a bomb and FBI agents descended, tossing him in a police car while he shouted “Allahu akbar.” God is great.
Jurors in Mohamud’s terrorism trial on Friday heard about the side of Mohamud his defense attorneys have sought to illustrate: a happy-go-lucky freshman at Oregon State University in 2009 with a solid group of friends and a penchant for drinking.
“From what I could tell, he was really into schoolwork,” said Luis Martinez, a friend of Mohamud’s from his earliest days in college.
But the questions persist.
Which veil fell away? Which life was exposed as a fraud? Who was the Somali-American teenager arrested on Black Friday 2010 while the two men he thought were his terrorist accomplices revealed themselves to be undercover FBI agents?
The man who said in covert recordings that he wanted to kill thousands of people the day after Thanksgiving in the name of Islamic radicalism is the same one that, a year earlier, drank a couple beers and walked a girl back to his dorm room after a frat party in Corvallis.
“Mohamud attempted to detonate what he believed was a vehicle bomb that he acquired from FBI undercover employees at Portland’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony,” according to the affidavit filed as part of court documents charging Mohamud with attempting to detonate a weapon of mass destruction.
“Moe always seemed like a nice guy in class, always polite and helpful,” former high school classmate Matthew Putnam told The Associated Press in 2010.
“Mohamud explained how he had been thinking of committing some form of violent jihad since the age of 15,” according to the affidavit.
“Had he not been Muslim, it would be like saying the blonde bimbos down the hall tried to bomb something,” former college classmate Bailey Lynn Reynolds told the AP. “It just wouldn’t fit.”
On Friday in court, defense attorney Steve Sady asked former classmate Elyssa Ridinger whether Mohamud ever discussed religion.
“We had several conversations about religion,” she said. “I’m a Christian, and we liked to discuss it together.”
Sady asked Martinez, a Catholic, if Mohamud ever tried to convert him. Martinez said he hadn’t.
Jurors were shown pictures from Mohamud’s freshman year. In one, the gangly teenager has his arm around two girls, a wide smile on his face.
Just months earlier, prosecutors say he had authored an article in an English-language magazine called “Jihad Recollections” under the pen name Ibn al-Mubarak, advocating physical fitness for the mujahideen in places where they couldn’t find exercise equipment. He would go on to write three more stories for the publication, his work appearing alongside contributions from Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida higher-ups.
Even on the morning of the tree lighting, Mohamud carefully protected the wall between his college life and his secret dealings with undercover FBI agents he thought were his jihadi conspirators.
Ridinger testified that the morning of the tree lighting, she, Mohamud and their friends went Black Friday shopping and that he was in good spirits. She said he showed no signs of anti-Western sentiment, was even more jovial than usual.
Ridinger, Martinez and Mohamud had all traveled from Corvallis to celebrate Thanksgiving with a friend in Portland. They went to a mall, then parted ways.
Ridinger and Martinez testified Friday that they found it odd that Mohamud asked them multiple times if they were really leaving Portland. He said he was meeting a man he described as his uncle, and would see them again that weekend in Corvallis.
The “uncle” was an undercover FBI agent, and just a few hours later, they met to make sure the bomb — a fake provided by the FBI — was still in place.
In the seconds before 5:40 p.m. on Nov. 26, the illusion of Mohamud’s dual lives was still intact.
At Portland’s Union Station, he pressed a button on a cellphone he thought would detonate a bomb. Sixteen blocks away, a cavalcade of city leadership was congratulating itself on another year at Portland’s Christmas tree lighting.
Nothing happened. Mohamud pressed the button again. Agents from the FBI took him into a waiting car as he kicked at them and shouted.
If convicted, he faces life in prison.