Would-Be Bomber's Intentions Proved by Cell Phone

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The annual tree-lighting ceremony at the Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, OR was the scene for an attempted car bombing this year. A disaffected 19-year-old tried to remotely detonate a bomb during the ceremony on Nov. 26, alleges the FBI, who supplied suspect Mohamed Osman Mohamud with an inert bomb.

The public was never in danger, the FBI says, because the suspect was the target of an ongoing sting operation due to his attempts to contact terrorists in Pakistan via e-mail. For months, the FBI says they had been watching Mohamud communicating via e-mail with a known terrorist in Pakistan, who supplied the contact information of another terrorist who was going to help him initiate terror attacks. When he was unable to make contact, the FBI stepped in posing as this second terrorist, and quizzed him about his intentions and the intended results as they ingratiated themselves to him by supplying him with what he thought was a working bomb using components he supplied.

The plot was to have resulted in the bombing of the crowd of hundreds gathered at the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, which Mohamud hoped would be "a fireworks show ... a spectacular show." He told the FBI he had been dreaming about something like this since he was 15.

The end of the FBI's operation came when Mohamud repeatedly attempted to remotely detonate the device via a cell phone trigger. The dummy bomb, of course, was simply to prove the suspect's intention of going through with the act, helping the FBI prove their case even further after repeated offers to him to contribute to his cause by prayer or other non-violent means.

A cell phone-based trigger for bombs is nothing new, of course, not in movies or in real life. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) using such triggers are used in Afghanistan every day, but are of limited utility when tracking down suspects due to where they are used. Bulk purchases of cell phones are monitored by authorities for just this reason. In the U.S., though, any phone call can be traced, one way or another.

A reverse phone lookup can be used to determine who made a call, which can be used as evidence in court, or can be used by an individual trying to figure out who keeps calling them. There has already been a backlash against the Islamic Center where Mohamud attended services, in the form of arson. Perhaps the authorities can check the phone records of the center to see if harassing phone calls were made prior to that attack, and use a reverse phone lookup to catch those bad guys, too.