CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Yellow police tape barricading the entrance of the Salman Al-Farisi Islamic Center Sunday morning, kept mosque attendees Ahsan Saeed and his brother Mohsin Saeed in the parking lot.
“We can’t go in,” said Ahsan. “The FBI and police have had it blocked off all morning.”
Ahsan and Mohsin have attended the Islamic center, which is also a mosque, for 24 years and grew up just across the lot from where they’re standing. They said the mosque is like a home to them, a place where they grew up, and where came to love Islam.
The mosque is a cultural epicenter for the estimated 1,000 Muslims living in the Corvallis area. It’s the only mosque within a nearly 50 mile radius and attracts those who want to pray or study Islam.
The mosque attracted the suspect involved in the attempted Portland Christmas tree bombing. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, attended the mosque a handful of times while he was in Corvallis taking classes at Oregon State University.
When Mohsin heard that Mohamud had been arrested for the attempted terrorist attack and that he had a link with the mosque, he said he had a feeling things would get worse.
So when Mohsin learned that someone had intentionally started a fire early Sunday morning at the mosque, he said unfortunately, he wasn’t surprised.
“[After his arrest] I told everyone to be careful,” said Mohsin. “I said that they’ve linked him with Corvallis now so you better watch out.”
Early Sunday morning, Mohsin’s guttural fears became reality.
According to Corvallis Police and the FBI, just after 2 a.m. fire crews responded to a fire in a room on the back side of the mosque.
FBI officials said the fire was likely started nearby a window and that it had severely damaged the interior of one room and left slight smoke damage in adjacent rooms. Fire crews were able to put out the blaze quickly, but once they extinguished the flames, the investigation heated up.
Corvallis fire officials ruled the incident as arson Sunday morning and within just a few hours the FBI became involved in the investigation.
KVAL News spoke with Oregon FBI Special Agent Art Balizan. Balizan said that the FBI does not have hard evidence to call the arson an act of retribution upon the Islamic community following Mohamud’s arrest.
“We have nothing to associate the events here with what happened in Portland,” said Balizan. “We just don’t know if this was somebody walking past who started the fire or if it is a targeted event.”
The FBI said it is treating the incident as a case which involves civil rights violations. When asked if the arson appeared to be a hate crime, Balizan said the FBI will have to complete its interviews and gathering evidence before it can determining whether it will be considered a hate crime.
But many mosque attendees said that the attack is an ‘abhorrent act of criminal arson’ inspired by ‘misguided retribution.’
In a statement issued by the mosque leadership Sunday afternoon, they spoke out against Mohamud’s plot and declared that they repudiate acts of violence in the name of Islam.
“…We are outraged by the news of a teenage individual being involved in a plot to bomb the tree-lighting in Portland, Oregon…. One should never generalize or judge all people for the words or actions of only a few of them. What is proper is to identify the accused with reference to his act and not to his nationality, faith, or race…. We repudiate all those who commit such acts of mindless violence.”
Many who attend the mosque said Mohamud has painted a violent picture of Islam that local Muslims have worked hard to denounce.
“The community here has spent so much time building up the positive image working with other groups in the community and now it’s just shattered to pieces,” said Ahsam. “We’re labeled as a terrorist organization now, so we have to start all over again.”
The FBI is offering a reward of $10,000 to anyone who provides information that leads to an arrest or conviction in connection to this arson.
If you have any information regarding the arson, please call the FBI tip line at 541-766-6506.