The suspect in the foiled Portland bomb plot, Mohamed Mohamud, was born into chaos, his family fleeing a bloody civil war in Somalia to a crowded refugee camp in Kenya. They left behind a comfortable city lifestyle, scrambled for survival, then eventually were reunited in the United States with hope for a new start.
Born in 1991, Mohamud was their golden son.
The boy’s father, Osman Barre, was a professor of computer engineering with a knack for languages. His mother, Mariam Barre, was a businesswoman who worked in banking. In their flight for safety, with boatloads of refugees pouring into Kenya, they were separated, with the father ending up in a sprawling refugee camp and the mother and baby stranded behind.
For more than 18 months, Barre had no idea whether they were alive.
But once he reached Portland, he never gave up searching for them as he melded into American life.
Friends and associates say rarely have they known such wonderful parents, calling them intelligent, persevering and giving.
But now, they say, nearly two decades after fleeing the bloodshed in Mogadishu, the family is again facing wrenching despair: Their 19-year-old son is accused of planning to detonate a weapon of mass destruction in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square on Nov. 26.
In early 1992, Osman Barre fled Mogadishu with 21 members of his extended family to the UtangeÂ refugee camp outside Mombasa, Kenya, which sits on the Indian Ocean. The camp, which grew to 40,000 refugees, taxed international officials as they tried feed everyone. Barre pitched in as well, teaching United Nations officials to speak Somali.
The United States was one of the countries offering asylum. The family, with no kin in the U.S., gained the sponsorship of several churches in the Portland area.
After 18 months in the camp, the 22 Somalis arrived at Portland International Airport at midnight on Oct. 27, 1993.
“It was our responsibility to help them find a place to live, get to appointments and get settled,” said Sylvia Eagan, then pastor at the Peace Church of the Brethren in Southeast Portland. “Only four of five of them spoke any English.”
It didn’t take long for her to appreciate Barre and the rest of the family as remarkable human beings.
“I can’t say enough about what wonderful people they are,” Eagan said. “They went through a very hard time.”
Eagan and Eileen Wilson, another member of the church, found the family temporary housing in Southeast Portland, helped them get food stamps, taught them to ride the bus and steered them to free English lessons for immigrants
Barre, who was 32, scrambled to find work. A former professor at Mogadishu University who speaks five languages, he got a job on the floor of a bottling plant. But he kept searching for a position that matched his skills and education.
“He’s an intelligent man,” Eagan said. “He was very willing to do whatever he needed to do to start at the bottom and work up.
Regularly, he would go to Eagan’s house to call a contact near the refugee camp, trying to track down his 21-year-old wife and son. For months, he didn’t know whether they were alive.
“He wanted very badly for them to come,” Wilson said. “He was going to do whatever it took to get her here.”
He also thought about others.
Wilson said that one time when they were chatting about their lives she casually mentioned that the fence in her backyard was falling apart.
The following Saturday he showed up on her doorstep with other members of his family to fix it.
“They tore down the old fence,” Wilson said. “They took me to buy the lumber. They made a new fence in the afternoon. And then they asked, ‘Now what else can we do?'”
They all dug some flowerbeds together.
“I thought how blessed I am to have these people in my life,” she said. “I’ve always thought that Osman was one of the most stellar people that I know.”
Around 1995, Barre was hired as an engineer at Intel. Then there was more good news: His wife and son were coming to Portland.
Eagan, who took him to the airport, said Barre was a bundle of joyful nerves.
Mohamed Mohamud, about 5 years old when he emerged from the plane, was shy around his father.
“Osman was overjoyed to have them with him again,” Eagan said. “He was very proud of his son and his daughter, who was born the first year after his wife arrived.”
Mohamud was a quiet, polite child.
“He kissed my hand every time he saw me,” Wilson said. “He would take his shoes off and take my hands and kiss me.”
The family settled into life in Beaverton, home to a large community of Somali immigrants. Mariam Barre, gracious and intelligent, quickly learned English, Eagan said, landing a job at a company that contracts with the U.S. Postal Service.
Mohamud, who has a different surname from his father which is typical in Somalia, went to Markham Elementary and Jackson Middle schools in Portland. At Jackson, where he was called Mo Mo or Mo squared, he had an easy smile, quick joke and enthusiasm for basketball, friends say.
“He seemed like a cool kid to me,” said Alexander Archield,Â a Westview classmate who played basketball with Mohamud at lunch. “He had a nice little shot and he hustled around a bit.”
During high school, he was known as a class clown, who chatted about sports and chased after girls.
One time he bet a classmate, James Hickey, that he could get the phone number of one girl.
Stuart Tomlinson/The OregonianOsman Barre, 49, goes through security at the federal courthouse Monday.”He bet me $10 he could her number by the end of the day,” Hickey said. “That never happened. He still owes me $10.”
Mohamud also skipped classes, recording songs on school computers.
“I remember him always being in the media studies room,” Hickey said. “He’d be rapping or trying to rap. I thought it was kind of funny.”
He’d tell friends he was from Brooklyn and sometimes wore camouflage jackets.
“He got his work done but not until the last minute, said Michael Cornea, a Westview classmate. “He liked goofing off.”
Friends say he buckled down as a sophomore.
“He had a whole new perspective on life,” Hickey said. “Everything was really serious. He was getting straight As. In his freshman year, he was immature. At times, disrespectful. Talking back.”
As a sophomore, Mohamud started thinking about jihad, he later told the FBI, according to court documents.
Sometimes the teen prayed with Muslim classmates in a space set aside for them at Westview.
“We were allowed to take 10 minutes out,” said Aniq Tanwir,Â a student from Pakistan, who played basketball with Mohamud.
“I remember him as a pretty normal kid,” Tanwir said. “He was always upbeat.”
But Mohamud went through extreme phases, bouncing from being a party boy to a pious teen. At times he advocated his religion, saying it was the best in the world.
Cornea said he tried to convert friends.
“He would always talk about religious politics” in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Cornea said. “He wanted to push his point of view that Islam should be taken up by everyone.”
Although Mohamud had a wide circle of friends from a wide range of backgrounds, the closest were Muslim immigrants, schoolmates say.
He didn’t talk much about his family, who embraced American life while maintaining relationships in the Somali community. Like other practicing Muslims, they observed Ramadan, attended Friday prayers and didn’t eat pork, Eagan said.
Mohamud wasn’t known for being anti-American.
“He may have joked,” Tanwir said, “but I never heard him say anything anti-American.
Others did but didn’t think much about it. Mohamud was just another student who appeared to get decent grades and took some demanding classes.
In his junior physics class, students had to give presentations on the workings of a mechanical device.
Several students picked staplers. Mohamud stood in front of the class, discussing the intricacies of a rocket-propelled grenade.
Students were stunned.
“That’s what a lot of terrorists were using,” said Ross Thoresen,Â a classmate. “The fact that he’s a Muslim and then does (the project) on the RPG” made everyone wonder about him.
“He was nice on the outside,” said Wesley Naylor,Â who saw the RPG presentation, “but you could see that there was something iffy about him.”
In his senior year, Mohamud worked on “Wink,” Westview’s poetry and arts magazine. The spring 2009 issue included a section about funny incidents that happened to students.
“I think that was the one he most heavily contributed to,” said Valerie Barlow, a student editor. It was called “Flush my Life.”
Mohamud graduated from Westview in June 2009, enrolling that fall at Oregon State University as a non-degree student.
“He aspired to study engineering,” said Todd Simmons, spokesman for the university.
His father was thrilled, telling friends and acquaintances that his son planned to be an engineer.
“He was very proud of him being such a good student and doing so well,” Eagan said.
In Corvallis, Mohamud quickly became known as a drinker and smoker, with a taste for hookahs and marijuana. He attended parties, danced, told loud jokes and was seen intoxicated in a dormitory, riding the elevator up and down.
In October 2009, he was accused of date rape by a student after late night revelry at the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity house. The young woman, who drank at least four shots of tequila and four beers, said she blacked out. Oregon State Police, who investigated the case, did not pursue charges.
Mohamud kept writing poetry and rap songs, appeared in a play and attended football games. He aspired to write a rap song about the Beavers that would rival “I love my Ducks.”
Occasionally, he worshipped at Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis.
“He would come once a month or once every two months,” said imam Yosof Wanly.Â “It was minimal.”
About this time, according to the FBI, Mohamud sought to go abroad to train to become an Islamic terrorist. He told undercover agents that his parents stopped him.
Osman and Mariam Barre, who were having problems of their own, separated about a year ago. But they were worried about their son becoming radicalized, said Isgow Mohamed,Â head of the Northwest Somali Community Organization in Portland.
Osman Barre reported his son to the authorities, Mohamed said.
“When you have a feeling that your son will end up dying on the street, you’d rather put him in a jail than on a suicide mission,” Mohamed said.
Last June, Mohamud tried to go to Alaska, but was on the no-fly list. He told the FBI that he had a fishing job and had previously wanted to go to Yemen. He also said he wrote a few articles for online Islamic publications supporting jihad.
He attended the spring quarter, which ended in March, but did not sign up for classes again until this past fall.
He dropped out Oct. 6. About that time, he sent a text message to a Westview High School friend, Alex Masak, asking for a place to go and shoot a gun.
“I just kind of ignored it,” Masak said.
Although not enrolled in classes, Mohamud was spotted at OSU. Wanly saw him at the campus library about a week and a half before the tree lighting ceremony in Pioneer Courthouse Square. He said Mohamud told a group of friends that he was going to Florida and was going to get married.
“Some of his friends cut him off because he was starting to act too weird,” Wanly said.
Early in the morning on Black Friday, Mohamud was at Washington Square with a group of Muslim students from Corvallis. He appeared to be in a jovial and generous mood, insisting on buying coffee.
The next day he was behind bars, accused of plotting to trigger a vanful explosives.
The news has bewildered and shocked former classmates, friends and associates.
“I was just crushed,” said Sylvia Eagan, thinking of Mohamud’s father. “I knew how proud he was of his son. Regardless of whether he is found guilty or not, this is a devastating blow for a parent to have their child in this situation. He had big dreams, like all parents do, for his children.”
Staff researcher Lynne Palombo and writers Candice Ruud, Molly Hottle, Wendy Owen, Allan Brettman and Brent Hunsberger contributed to this story.
Source: The Oregonian The Oregonian
— Lynne Terry