For God or for Fame? The Making of a Teenage Bomber

On November 26, Mohamed Mohamud was arrested for allegedly attempting to trigger a bomb at a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony in downtown Portland, Oregon. This was chilling news for Portlanders, and the chill quickly spread across the nation. Since his arrest, there has been much discussion about the nature of his motives, and legal experts have raised concerns about entrapment.

Mohamud is a 19-year-old Somali-born American citizen from a highly educated family that fled the civil war in the early 1990s. According to his arrest warrant, Mahamud complained about American Muslims, who “reside amongst the [infidels]… What has stopped you from fighting in the cause of Allah?” He even complained about his parents to undercover FBI agents for preventing his “passage from the lands of the polytheists.” The New York Times reported that in recent months “he dropped out of school and stopped attending mosque.” Given these statements, it would seem that Mohamud is a disaffected youth who had withdrawn from his family and local community well before the tree lighting ceremony.

Our Media, Ourselves

Ironically, while Mohamud lamented how unrepresented he was by American Muslims and Somalis, his arrest has become fodder for speculations about what it tells us about the nature of these communities. We live in a media world in which news coverage of the individual Muslim’s actions metonymically represents Islam; not only throughout the globe today but also throughout its fourteen centuries of history. Pundits, Islamophobes, and Muslim apologists alike look to the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition as the source that could explain or condemn Mohamud’s actions, but his motives seem to make most sense in the context of this new media landscape in which, as Marshall McLuhan argued, “the medium is the message.” Media are “extensions of man.” What McLuhen meant by these aphorisms is that media do not simply serve as means for communication within society; they shape society by forming social interactions.

The truth of these aphorisms for the contemporary world was perhaps most poignantly felt and expressed by the Portland Somali and Muslim communities for whom the news coverage of Mohamud’s arrest was experienced as a personal betrayal even though they had never even met Mohamud. “He ruined it for everybody,” a 24-year-old Somali Portlander told The Oregonian. Another Somali-American employed at the city of Portland’s Office of Human Relations said, “As a Somali, it’s, ‘Oh, my God, one more thing we’ll be remembered for.’” 

Five Choices, if You’re a Muslim

Media images of Muslims do not only shape the experiences of Muslims in this country; they also shape non-Muslims’ experiences of Muslims. This is a simple assertion with profound implications, which the FBI’s actions in Mohamud’s case force us to face. A close look at Mohamud’s 36-page arrest warrant shows that the FBI placed him in one of the five options associated with the stereotypical Muslim found in media-influenced homeland security discourse. About four months before Mohamud was arrested, an FBI undercover employee, pretending to represent a militant Muslim group in Pakistan, met with Mohamud in a downtown Portland hotel to discuss his aspirations for “the cause.” The FBI agent gave Mohamud five options: “(1) pray five times a day and spread Islam to others; (2) continue studying and get an engineering or medical degree so he could help the brothers overseas; (3) raise funds for the brothers overseas; (4) become ‘operational’; and (5) become a ‘shaheed’ (martyr).”

These five options divide Muslims into three types. The first type is the “good Muslim” for whom Islam is a set of private rituals encapsulated in the proverbial Five Pillars.

The second type is the equivalent of the “sleeper cell.” He is political and concerned about the plight of Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories. He may wish to lend moral and financial support to Muslims in these regions but is not “operational.”

The third type is the militant Muslim willing to fight and die for “Muslim causes.”

Missing entirely from this discourse is the option to organize and become active in nonviolent civic or political organizations that support his causes. In reality, however, this is the option chosen by the overwhelming majority of American Muslims who are concerned about American Muslim civil rights and the plight of Muslims in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories.

Given his five options, the teenager Mohamud chose, not surprisingly, to become “operational.” But all he knew about what it meant to become operational was based on what he had seen on the news, particularly the news coverage of car bombs in the Middle East and the November 26, 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Most tellingly in this regard, he told the undercover FBI agent that he did not know how he could become “operational” and “would need training.”

The FBI’s operationalizing of Mohamud has raised many legitimate questions about entrapment. The arrest warrant, however, shows the FBI deliberately limiting their role to the provision of materials for Mohamud to carry out his intended act. The undercover FBI agent repeatedly asked Mohamud whether or not this was what his heart told him to do: “This is your choice, it’s what in [sic] your heart, we can’t tell you what’s in your heart.”

FBI Does Theology

By repeatedly asking what was in his heart, the FBI seems to have not only sought to establish intent, but assumed that Muslim militancy is directly related to religion and religious sentiments. Moreover, its operative assumption about religion was an implicitly Protestant one which conceived religion as an inward experience (faith) rather than the more Islamic conception of religion as the moral standard by which people ought to be judged.

While the FBI was trying to ascertain the intent of Mohamud’s heart, Mohamud himself, by FBI’s own account of events, appears to have been preoccupied with creating sensational headlines. According to the FBI affidavit, when he was asked how he feels about women and children being present at the tree lighting ceremony, he retorted, “[I]magine every day we see you know in our, you know, newspapers and news you know our people are killed you know. So for us to see them in the same…” Mohamud wanted to be an actor of consequence in a media-defined reality, the virtual landscape created by our media in which the only Muslim actors are stereotypically either militants or victims of American neo-imperialism. It is only in this virtual landscape that it becomes sensible for the options given to Mohamud to be either prayer or violence.

Again, relying on the FBI’s account of the events leading up to November 26, Mohamud’s primary connection with Afghanistan or the northwest frontier of Pakistan was media images of Osama bin Laden. As further evidence of his actions being motivated within a media world was the Osama bin Laden-like video he recorded to take credit for the bombing. He changed his clothes for the video and put on a white robe and a white-and-red headdress. He told his FBI handler that, “he wanted to be ‘Sheik Osama style’.” His attachment to Osama bin Laden was based on a dream he had had of the mountains of Yemen, the land of Osama bin Laden’s ancestors. He was around fifteen years old at that time. He also seems to have been impressed by another media image—this time of the November 26, 2008 attacks in Mumbai. He, a product of his media world, did not seem too concerned that the Mumbai attacks were reportedly carried out by Lashkar-e Taiba, which targets India over the dispute in Kashmir, and not al Qaeda. Perhaps in his mind it was all jihad on the news!

Well, when I was fifteen you know I had a, I was—I made [a special prayer for guidance] about whether I should you know… should go you know and make jihad in a different country or to make like an operation here you know like, something like Mumbai. You know, it would be simple you know you could get some weapon you know. So I made [a special prayer for guidance] and it was like when I was fifteen so, I had a dream that night, and in my dream you know I saw the mountains of Yemen.

Mohamud’s decision to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in which families were presents has generally been taken as emblematic of the cold-hearted brutality and anti-Christian sentiments of Muslim militants; a closer look at his media-inspired motivation, however, suggests that what was significant about the tree lighting ceremony for Mahmud was not so much the presence of families or the Christmas tree but the fact that the event coincided with the anniversary of the 2008 Mumbai attack.

The Hunt for Ratings

When the medium is the message, one can’t really control the message. There are other ways as well in which the message he sought to convey through the media was misunderstood. Mohamud was looking for revenge of an equal Q-rating. The dead bodies would have been collateral damage. “[I]t’s gonna be a fireworks show… a spectacular show,” he told one of the FBI agents helping him acquire a bomb, “New York Times will give it two thumbs up.”

It is instructive to remember that in becoming “operational” Mohamud never had any face-to-face contact with terrorists or militants. Nor did he seem to have had any real connection with, or actual experience of the war in Afghanistan. His main connection with militants, according to the FBI, was mainly through a website called “Jihad Recollections,” where he pseudonymously published articles in 2009. He sought headline-grabbing revenge through equivalency in bloody news coverage. In his video statement, he said,

“For as long as you threaten our security, your people will not remain safe. As your soldiers target our civilians, we will not help to do so. Did you think that you could invade a Muslim land, and we would not invade you, but Allah will have soldiers scattered everywhere across the globe.”

The discrepancy in Mohamud’s mind between reality in the media and reality of actual events speaks to McLuhan’s assertion that media are extensions of man. There is, of course, no real equivalency between the actions of a teenager seeking to become operational through the Internet and the actions of the most powerful army the world has ever known, except perhaps in the 24/7 media defined reality that envelops us.