PORTLAND, Ore. — The Somali-born university student met with an undercover FBI agent in August at a Portland hotel and told him he had found the perfect location for a terrorist attack: the city's annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud told the agent that he had dreamed of carrying out an attack for years, and the city's Pioneer Courthouse Square would be packed with thousands, "a huge mass that will ... be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays," according to an affidavit.
On Friday, Mohamud parked what he thought was a bomb-laden van near the ceremony and then went to a nearby train station, where he dialed a cell phone that he believed would detonate the vehicle. Instead, federal authorities moved in and arrested him. No one was hurt.
The case is the latest in a string of alleged terrorist plots by U.S. citizens or residents, including one at Times Square in which a Pakistan-born man pleaded guilty earlier this year to trying to set off a car bomb at a busy street corner.
Officials said Mohamud had no formal ties to foreign terror groups, although he had reached out to suspected terrorists in Pakistan.
Authorities have not explained how a young Muslim man described by friends as an average university student who drank an occasional beer and hung out with fraternity friends became radicalized.
Mohamud is scheduled to appear in court on Monday, and it wasn't clear if he had a lawyer yet.
FBI agents say they began investigating after receiving a tip from an unidentified person who expressed concern about Mohamud. The Washington Post reported that the tip came from a member of the Muslim community.
At 15, he told undercover agents, he made a prayer for guidance, "about whether I should ... go, you know, and make jihad in a different country or to make like an operation here."
Mohamud graduated from high school in Beaverton. In a science class, he once gave a presentation on how a rocket-propelled grenade worked, NBC station KGW-TV reported.
One of Mohamud's former classmates told KGW of an argument the pair had over a messy locker. "The main thing was, the way he said he hated Americans," said Andy Stull. "It was serious. He looked me in the eye and had this look in his eye, like it was his determination in life – 'I hate Americans!'"
Mohamud dropped out of Oregon State University in Corvallis on Oct. 6, the school said. He hadn't declared a major.
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Yosof Wanly, imam at the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, said Mohamud was a normal student who went to athletic events, drank the occasional beer and was into rap music and culture.
Wanly said Mohamud was religious but didn't come to the mosque consistently. Meanwhile, authorities say arson caused a fire at that same mosque early Sunday morning. Carla Pusateri, a fire prevention officer for the Corvallis Fire Department, said "quite a bit of evidence" was left at the scene, which led her to believe the fire was intentionally set. No injuries have been reported.
The fire on Sunday was contained to one room, burning 80 percent of the center's office, Wanly said. The worship areas were untouched.
Beginning in August 2009, court documents allege, Mohamud began e-mail communications with a friend overseas who had studied in Oregon, asking how he could travel to Pakistan and join the fight for jihad.
The e-mail exchanges led the FBI to believe that Mohamud's friend in Pakistan "had joined others involved in terrorist activities" and was inviting Mohamud to join him, prosecutors say.Video: FBI: Sting thwarts Oregon teen’s bomb plot (on this page)
Mohamud tried to board a flight to Kodiak, Alaska, on June 14 of this year from Portland but wasn't allowed to board and was interviewed by the FBI, prosecutors say. Mohamud told the FBI he wanted to earn money fishing and then travel to join "the brothers." He said he had previously hoped to travel to Yemen but had never obtained a ticket or a visa.
Less than two weeks later an agent e-mailed Mohamud, pretending to be affiliated with one of the people overseas whom Mohamud had tried to contact.
Undercover agents then set up a series of face-to-face meetings with Mohamud at hotels in Portland and Corvallis. They persuaded Mohamud they were in contact with a "council" of jihadists that were interested in him, the documents say.
During their first meeting on July 30, Mohamud told an agent there were a number of ways he could help "the cause," ranging from praying five times a day to "becoming a martyr."
Mohamud replied he "thought of putting an explosion together but that he needed help doing so," the documents say.
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At a second meeting on Aug. 19 at a Portland hotel, the agent brought another undercover agent, the documents said, and Mohamud told them he had selected Pioneer Courthouse Square for the bombing.
On Nov. 4, in the backcountry along Oregon's coast, agents convinced Mohamud that he was testing an explosive device — although the explosion was controlled by agents rather than the youth.
The affidavit said Mohamud was warned several times about the seriousness of his plan, that women and children could die, and that he could back out.
'A dark day'
Prosecutors say after the trip to the backcountry, Mohamud made a video in the presence of one of the undercover agents, putting on clothes he described as "Sheik Osama style:" a white robe, red and white headdress, and camouflage jacket. He read a statement speaking of his dream of bringing "a dark day" on Americans and blaming his family for getting in the way.
"To my parents who held me back from Jihad in the cause of Allah. I say to them ... if you — if you make allies with the enemy, then Allah's power ... will ask you about that on the day of judgment, and nothing that you do can hold me back," he said.
Friday, an agent and Mohamud drove into downtown Portland to the white van that carried six 55-gallon drums with detonation cords and plastic caps, but all of them were inert.
Authorities said they allowed the plot to proceed to obtain evidence to charge the suspect with attempt.
"This individual was really going to try to carry out mass destruction in Portland," Mayor Sam Adams told NBC News.
Video: Alleged bomb plot stuns Portland residents (on this page)
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Saturday that President Barack Obama was aware of the FBI operation before Friday's arrest and was assured that the public was not in danger.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have resettled in the United States since their country plunged into lawlessness in 1991, and the U.S. has boosted aid to the country. In August, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment naming 14 people accused of being a deadly pipeline routing money and fighters from the U.S. to al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliated group in Mohamud's native Somalia.
FBI agent E.K. Wilson said there is no apparent connection between the bomb plot in Portland and the investigation he's overseeing into about 20 men who left Minneapolis to join al-Shabab in Somalia.
Officials have been working with Muslim leaders across the United States, particularly with the Somali community in Minnesota, trying to combat the radicalization.
The Associated Press, NBC News and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.