The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office are investigating as a potential hate crime an arson fire that damaged part of a Corvallis mosque.
Investigators from the FBI and the Corvallis Police Department are investigating whether The Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center at 610 N.W. Kings Blvd. might have been targeted because it occasionally was attended by Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, a former Oregon State University student.
Mohamud remains jailed on federal terrorism charges in connection with his attempt Friday to detonate a van full of what he thought were explosives near a crowd of families watching the Christmas tree lighting at Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. Over the past six months, undercover FBI agents convinced Mohamud they were helping him carry out a bombing plot. They became aware of Mohamud after the teen sent e-mails to two suspected terrorists in Pakistan.
FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele out of the Portland office said Sunday that the arson fire is being investigated as a hate crime because it appears that it was an attempt “to interfere with the civil right of the members of the church to freely worship.”
A Corvallis police sergeant on patrol discovered the fire about 2:15 a.m. when he noticed smoke coming from the Islamic Center. The Corvallis Fire Department sent two fire engines, a ladder truck and a command vehicle to the scene and about a dozen firefighters quickly knocked down the blaze and limited damage to one office.
People at the scene said it appeared that the fire might have started from someone throwing a glass full of a flammable liquid through the window.
The fire heavily damaged the office of the Islamic Center’s director, Mohammed Siala. The rest of the building, including the main worship area, was unharmed, and there were no injuries.
Sunday afternoon, federal and local officials held a press conference to clarify the connection — or lack of it — between the fire and Mohamud’s arrest.
Joined by U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton and Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson, Art Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland Division, said the fire is under federal investigation because of the potential for a civil rights violation, since the attack was done at a place of worship.
Although the FBI was involved in the investigation and arrest of Mohamud, Balizan said the fire is not connected in any other way with the attempted attack on Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Yosof Wanly, the imam of the mosque, said Mohamud occasionally attended prayers, but did not consistently spend time at the mosque.
Mohamud is being held at Multnomah County Detention Center and will appear in federal court at 1:30 p.m. on Monday.
Currently, Balizan said investigators are methodically gathering information from neighbors by going door-to-door in the community.
“We don’t know who started it, or why it was started,” he said.
Haroldson said the DA’s office and the Corvallis Police Department will work closely with the FBI. He said he was saddened to hear the news of the fire because such violence is rare here.
“Corvallis is not accustomed to a high number of violent crimes,” he said.
The mosque is not the only place of worship in the area to be damaged by fire recently.
On Oct. 2, Corvallis firefighters responded to a fire at St. Mary’s Catholic Church at 501 N.W. 25th St.; the blaze, found outside the church, was almost out by the time they arrived.
Also, in the early morning of Sept. 2, a fire was reported at Grace Lutheran Church at 435 N.W. 21st St., and a group of recycling bins and a wooden enclosure were damaged.
Steele said those cases were not investigated as federal crimes at the time because they were small fires, outside of the buildings, and did not seem to be set so as to interfere with the right of church members to practice their faith.
Contact reporter Gail Cole at 541-758-9510 or at email@example.com
**Earlier Associated Press story below - originally posted at 11:30 a.m. 11-29-10**
By JONATHAN COOPER and NIGEL DUARA
CORVALLIS — 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, and it wasn’t clear if he had a lawyer yet.
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.
The Associated Press reached Mohamud’s parents by phone, but they declined to talk to a reporter.
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.
Duara reported from Portland. Associated Press writers William McCall and Tim Fought also contributed to this report.