PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - U.S. investigators said a fire at an Islamic center in Oregon on Sunday was arson and warned they would tolerate no retribution for an attempt by a Somali-born teenager to detonate what he thought was a car bomb.
The fire occurred less than two days after Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who had attended prayers at the center, was arrested in a sting involving a fake bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Oregon’s largest city, Portland.
The fire damaged a room at the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis before dawn on Sunday. “We do have evidence that it was arson,” said Carla Pusateri of Corvallis Fire Department, who led the initial investigation.
Mohamud, 19, took classes at Oregon State University in Corvallis, about 80 miles south of Portland, and the imam at Salman Alfarisi previously had told local television that Mohamud “occasionally” attended prayers there.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation offered up to $10,000 for information leading to a conviction in the arson case, saying it would not tolerate attacks on the Muslim community.
“This is a big, dangerous mess,” Imam Mikal Shabazz, president of the Oregon Islamic Chaplains Organization and a prominent Muslim activist in Portland, said on Sunday as he learned of the mosque fire.
Shabazz said he had just spoken with an African-American Muslim woman who was verbally attacked by a young man in southwest Portland before others intervened in her defense.
Portland Mayor Sam Adams told a news conference late on Sunday that he had increased security at city mosques, as community leaders expressed concerns about the impact on the area’s fast-growing community of an estimated 8,000 Somalis.
“We are really sad and outraged,” said Kayse Jama, executive director of Portland’s Center for Intercultural Organizing and a Somali who fled the war-torn country in 1999.
He believed Somali youths in the United States were caught between two cultures. “They have a vacuum. They are gullible and can be influenced by dark, negative forces,” he said in an interview with Reuters.
Jama does not know Mohamud, but said he does know his father, describing him as “very devastated” and “distraught.”
Rick Nitti, executive director of Neighborhood House, which works with many immigrant groups, also saw a problem for young Somalis struggling to find their U.S. identity in the face of parents who tend to be relatively conservative and strict.
“The kids grow up here with the media bombardment,” Nitti said. “They want to be cool, they are attracted to the American culture.”
Mohamud proceeded with his plot despite opportunities to back away, said a U.S. government complaint, which quotes him praising the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and expressing a desire to see “body parts and blood” in Portland.
But the supposed bomb near Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square was a fake provided by law enforcement, and officials said people in the West Coast city had never been in danger at any time during the sting operation, which lasted for months.
Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is due to appear in a federal court in Portland on Monday. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of the charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.
Additional reporting and writing by Braden Reddall in San Francisco; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Jackie "Frank