By Melissa Chavez
With the arrest of Somali-born Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, for the foiled bomb attack Friday on Pioneer Courthouse Square’s tree lighting ceremony, local residents and minority populations in particular are questioning their safety.
From attendees of the downtown festivities — who were, thanks to the FBI, never in any real danger — to the local Somali and Muslim populations — who are worried about acts of retaliation after an arson fire at the Corvallis-based Salman Al-Farisi Islamic Center — it seems that everyone is more closely looking at their community.
A Portlander who attended the tree-lighting, and who was later asked about the incident, was more concerned with the FBI’s role in providing support to the teenage suspect the bombing plot.
“What is distressing about the incident is not so much that the FBI arrested or otherwise intervened,” said resident Joe Clement, 24, “but that the FBI used him to create a scenario that scared a lot of people.”
This sentiment was echoed in social media outlets, where Portlanders asked Mayor Sam Adams about the possibility of FBI entrapment in the case, to which Adams answered, “The FBI says ‘no’ but a trial will air out that issue.”
On Monday at Mohamud’s arraignment hearing, his attorney did mention a defense of entrapment, as the defendant plead not guilty.
Within the Somali community, Kayse Jama, executive director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing on North Killingsworth Street, says that, “This is a time for unity within the community … bringing it together as one.”
Somalis are the largest African immigrant population in Oregon, with an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 members in Multnomah and Washington counties alone.
But that community is also disjointed at times, Jama says, because the United States’ culture is so different for youth to adjust to.
Jama stresses that “This is not only a Portland-, or an Oregon-specific issue, but a national issue concerning Somali youth. We’re asking for all community members to join together to help the youth; to support them, and make them feel a part of the community… both the American and Somali ones.”
In the aftermath of the fire, Jama said, “The community is trying to go back to normal day-to-day activities. There’s no real cause to do different.”
Investigators are looking into the likelihood that the early Sunday morning fire was in retaliation to the bomb plot, as Mohamud occasionally attended the mosque while he was enrolled at Oregon State University.
Since the fire, police have stepped up patrols around mosques.
No one was injured in the blaze, though 80 percent of the Islamic center’s office was burned.
The FBI has joined the arson investigation, and has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
“We have made it quite clear that the FBI will not tolerate any kind of retribution or attack on the Muslim community,” said Arthur Balizan, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Oregon, in a prepared statement. “We are working very closely with the leadership at the mosque. We will find the person responsible for this attack and bring the full force of the federal justice system to bear. In the meantime, the FBI remains absolutely committed to protecting each and every American’s right to live, work and worship in a free and safe society.”
In reaction to the arson fire, one Portland resident remembered that “During the Iran hostage affair, Lebanese restaurant owners were attacked (because) people couldn’t tell — or bother to find out — the different between Arabs and Iranians. Never mind that Iranians who came to United States to escape the political regime had nothing to do with it anyway,” she said. “People feeling powerless lash out thoughtlessly.”
In response to questions about fear of further reprisals, Mayor Sam Adams said, “I trust in Portlanders’ sense of fairness; that bad actions by one member of any group does not and should not be generalized or applied more widely to other members of that same group. Otherwise, as part of the biggest racial group in Portland, European-Americans, producing many crimes daily, would be in deep trouble.”
He added that City Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Portland Police Chief Mike Reese are doing outreach to leadership within the Somali community.
On Sunday, Adams and Fritz met with leaders of the Somali community at City Hall for a peace rally to discuss the Black Friday scare and its aftermath.
Also at the rally was Jama, acting as a spokesman for the Somali community.
“The mayor’s office and Amanda Fritz’s office have been very helpful. We’re really grateful for their support,” he said. “Citizens have been calling or emailing asking how they can help…everyone is being very supportive.”
Mohamud, a graduate of Beaverton’s Westview High School who had been enrolled at Oregon State until October, was first contacted by an undercover FBI agent in June, though he had been monitored by investigators for at least months prior.
Just minutes after Mohamud’s 5:40 p.m. arrest, the tree lighting ceremony continued without further incident.
In response to the thwarted bomb plot, Commissioner Dan Saltzman on Monday called for the City Council to rejoin the federal Portland Joint Terrorism Task Force, which focuses on counteracting international terrorism through increased security.
Created in 1997, the JTTF focused primarily on domestic terrorism, though that changed following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks.
Saltzman said Portland should commit to rejoining the JTTF at its Dec. 8 city council meeting, saying, “We need to move forward, we must not delay when the safety of our residents is at stake.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.