CORVALLIS, Ore. – 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 today.
On Friday, he parked what he thought was a bomb-laden van near the ceremony. When he dialed a cell phone he believed would detonate the vehicle, federal authorities moved in and arrested him. No one was hurt.
Nor were there 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.”
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.
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.
Mohamud is among tens of thousands of Somalis who have resettled in the United States since their country plunged into lawlessness in 1991. Omar Jamal, first secretary for the Somali mission to the United Nations in New York City, said his office has received “thousands of calls” from Somalis in the United States who are concerned about tactics used by federal agents.
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 and that he could back out.