CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — Someone set fire to an Islamic center on Sunday, two days after a man who worshipped there was accused of trying to blow up a van full of explosives during Portland’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Other Muslims fear it could be the first volley of misplaced retribution.
The charges against Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-born 19-year-old who was caught in a federal sting operation, are testing tolerance in a state that has been largely accepting of Muslims. Muslims who know the suspect say they are shocked by the allegations against him and that he had given them no hint of falling into radicalism.
The fire at the Salman Al-Farisi Islamic Center in Corvallis was reported at 2:15 a.m., and evidence at the scene led authorities to believe it was set intentionally, said Carla Pusateri, a fire prevention officer for the Corvallis Fire Department.
Authorities don’t know who started the blaze or why, but they believe the center was targeted because Mohamud occasionally worshipped there.
Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon, said there’s no conclusive link to the bombing in Portland or specific evidence that it’s a hate crime, other than the timing.
U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton vowed to prosecute the case aggressively.
“The fact is that violent extremists come from all religions and no religion at all. For one person to blame a group, if that’s what happened here, is uniquely anti-American and will be pursued with the full force of the Justice Department,” he said.
Mohamud was being held on charges of plotting to carry out a terror attack Friday on a crowd of thousands at Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. He is scheduled to appear in court on Monday. His attorney, Stephen R. Sady, didn’t return a telephone message left Sunday by The Associated Press.
The suspect’s mother, Maryan Hassan, declined to answer any questions when contacted by phone late Sunday by The Associated Press, referring all questions to Sady. His father also refused to comment.
On Friday, he 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, federal authorities said. Instead, federal authorities moved in and arrested him. No one was hurt.
There were also no injuries in Sunday’s fire, which burned 80 percent of the center’s office but did not spread to worship areas or any other rooms, said Yosof Wanly, the center’s imam.
After daybreak, members gathered at the center, where a broken window had been boarded up.
“I’ve prayed for my family and friends, because obviously if someone was deliberate enough to do this, what’s to stop them from coming to our homes and our schools?” said Mohamed Alyagouri, a 31-year-old father of two who worships at the center. “I’m afraid for my children getting harassed from their teachers, maybe from their friends.”
Wanly said he was thinking about temporarily relocating his family because of the possibility of hate crimes.
“We know how it is, we know some people due to ignorance are going to perceive of these things and hold most Muslims accountable,” Wanly said. But he said Corvallis, a college town about 75 miles southwest of Portland, has long been accepting of Muslims.
“The common scene here is to be very friendly, accepting various cultures and religions,” Wanly said. “The Islamic center has been here for 40 years, it’s more American than most Americans with regards to age.”
In Portland, residents are alarmed by the terror plot, but Mayor Sam Adams said they are “not going to let this change our values of being an open and embracing city.” He said that he beefed up patrols around mosques “and other facilities that might be vulnerable to knuckle-headed retribution” after hearing of the bomb plot.
The FBI was working closely with leadership at the Corvallis center as agents investigated the fire, Balizan said. The bureau has established a telephone tip line and a $10,000 reward has been offered for information leading to an arrest.
Wanly said Mohamud moved to the U.S. from Somalia as a young boy. Mohamud graduated from high school in the Portland suburb of Beaverton. He attended Oregon State University but dropped out on Oct. 6.
Isgow Mohamed, director of the Northwest Somali Community Organization, said he has known Mohamud’s father, Osman Barre, since 1996.
“Both parents, mother and father, they are civilized people,” Mohamed said. “They don’t believe in killing even a small animal. So what do you think two civilized people, what their product will be?”
Barre has not spoken with his son since his arrest on Friday, Mohamed said.
Wanly described Mohamud as a normal student who went to athletic events, drank an occasional beer and was into rap music and culture. He described Mohamud as religious, saying he attended prayers in Corvallis once or twice a month over a year and a half.
Wanly, 24, said that in about 15 conversations he had with Mohamud, the teen rarely discussed religion. He said that may have been because Mohamud knew his extremist views wouldn’t be tolerated, and suggested that Mohamud was influenced by radical teachings he read on the Internet.
“If a person has a type of agenda, he can find anything he wants on the Internet and block out everything else,” Wanly said.
In the days leading up to his arrest, Mohamud’s friends thought he appeared on edge, Wanly said.
“He seemed to be in a state of confusion,” Wanly said. “He would say things that weren’t true. He’d say ‘I’m going to go get married,’ for example. He wasn’t going to go get married.”
Mohamud is among tens of thousands of Somalis who have resettled in the United States since their country plunged into lawlessness in 1991. The U.N.-backed government controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu, the capital, while large parts of Somalia are controlled by the insurgent group Al-Shabab, which vows allegiance to al-Qaida.
Omar Jamal, first secretary for the Somali mission to the United Nations in New York City, told The Associated Press his office has received “thousands of calls” from Somalis in the United States who are concerned about tactics used by federal agents in the sting operation against Mohamud.
Jamal said there is concern in the Somali community that Mohamud was “lured into an illegal act.”
An FBI affidavit said it was Mohamud who picked the target of the bomb plot, that he was warned several times about the seriousness of his plan, that women and children could die, and that he could back out.
Officials said Mohamud had no formal ties to foreign terror groups, although he had reached out to suspected terrorists in Pakistan.
After the FBI got a tip about Mohamud, an agent e-mailed him over the summer, pretending to be affiliated with an “unindicted associate” whom Mohamud had tried to contact.
Agents had some face-to-face meetings with Mohamud. On Nov. 4, in the backcountry along Oregon’s coast, they convinced him that he was testing an explosive device — although the explosion was controlled by agents.
On Friday, an agent and Mohamud drove into downtown Portland in a white van that carried six 55-gallon drums with detonation cords and plastic caps, but all of them were inert.
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