It wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I learned of the alleged terrorist plot to detonate a car bomb at the Oregon Holiday Tree Lighting ceremony. I was there last night at the Tree Lighting — as were 15,000 to 20,000 of my closest friends — waiting for Pink Martini and Mayor Sam Adams to flip the switch and light the three, thus kicking-off the holiday season. Little did we know at the time that three to four blocks away, an alleged terrorist was frantically dialing a phone number trying to remotely detonate a car bomb parked on the street near the Tree Lighting ceremony.
I had arrived at the Square earlier in the day, mingling with other tree lighting attendees and jockeying for the best viewing spot possible. About 15 minutes after I arrived, a phalanx of four to six police cars surrounded the Square, and no fewer than a half-dozen motorcycle cops parked alongside the Square across from Nordstrom. Something was amiss. The police seemed edgy, and they showed up all at once — and fast. As the rain poured down, I looked up the street. There, in the distance, a group of 100 or so people walked calmly down the street carrying warning signs. Signs that warned us all of the moral dangers of buying fur coats and clothing on Black Friday. Protesters. Gotta love them.
Then, the police scattered. As quickly as they arrived, they were back to the streets, protecting all those holiday shoppers from the potentially life-threatening paper cuts of Black Friday receipts. Of course, what we didn’t know then was that while the police may have scattered, the FBI and counter-terrorism teams were hard at work thwarting the alleged bomb plot.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, was arrested Friday in downtown Portland after using a cell phone to try to detonate what he thought were explosives in a van, prosecutors said. It turned out to be a dummy bomb put together by FBI agents, the culmination of a long-term investigation to thwart the naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia in his alleged attempt to kill or maim thousands of citizens. The tree lighting took place just 10 minutes before his arrest, just as children were being hoisted onto moms’ and dads’ shoulders, teens and young adults were turning on their green glow buttons, and as the Christmas carols started to wind down.
Between the police-escorted protesters and the Tree Lighting, officials from the Square seemed more stressed than normal. I’ve seen them at several previous holiday tree lightings and other events, but they had never seemed this out of sorts. At the time I chalked it up to pre-event nerves. Now I wonder if they’d received a call from the FBI or police alerting them to the situation and asking them to stay calm. None of the everyday citizens at the tree lighting knew a supposed car bomb sat 30 feet away; it’s hard to believe that people from the Square were as clueless as the rest of us.
Mohamud — who faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine — was arrested on suspicion of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. He is scheduled to make his initial appearance in federal court in Portland on Monday. Meanwhile, the rest of us will go back to our day jobs and hug and kiss our kids and spouses as if nothing happened.
Last night at the holiday tree lighting, of all places, a bomb plot was thwarted. The irony is that it happened in Portland, and we have the FBI to thank for it. Portland and the FBI don’t always see eye to eye. We’re a city of protesters, a city of people whose cars wield bumper stickers that say “keep Portland weird,” and a city where the mayor once opted-out of an FBI-mandated nationwide program. If nothing else changes, if we all really do go back to our daily lives after this thwarted Christmastime bomb plot, maybe — just maybe — people in town will change their tune regarding the FBI. I, for one, couldn’t be more thankful for them or their efforts today.
— Jonas Allen