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Muslims fear fire in Oregon was retaliation

Blaze at Islamic center follows sting arrest during tree lighting

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By Jonathan Cooper
Associated Press / November 29, 2010

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CORVALLIS, Ore. — A fire damaged an Islamic center yesterday, two days after a man who worshiped there was accused of trying to blow up a van full of explosives during Portland’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Muslims fear the fire 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 said they are shocked by the allegations against him and that he had given them no hint that he had fallen 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 worshiped there.

“We have made it quite clear that the FBI will not tolerate any kind of retribution or attack on the Muslim community,’’ said Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon.

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, and it wasn’t clear if he had a lawyer.

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 yesterday’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. “We do what we can, but it’s a tough situation.’’

The imam 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.’’

The FBI was working closely with leadership at the center as agents investigated the fire, Balizan said. A $10,000 reward was offered for information leading to an arrest.

Authorities have not explained how Mohamud, an Oregon State University student until he dropped out on Oct. 6, became radicalized. Mohamud graduated from high school in the Portland suburb of Beaverton, although few details of his time there were available.

Wanly described him 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 teaching he read on the Internet.

Mohamud is among tens of thousands of Somalis who have resettled in the United States since their country plunged into lawlessness in 1991. The UN-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 Qaeda.

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 in the sting operation against Mohamud.

Jamal said the Somali community is opposed to harming citizens of the United States but there is concern 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.

FBI agents say they began investigating after receiving a tip from an unidentified person who expressed concern about Mohamud. This summer an agent e-mailed Mohamud, pretending to be affiliated with an “unindicted associate’’ whom Mohamud had tried to contact.

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