Image: Corvallis, Ore., mosque fire
Jesse Skoubo  /  Corvallis Gazette-Times
Ahson Saeed, of Corvallis, Ore., reacts over a pile of burned debris pulled from a mosque in Corvallis, Ore., on Sunday. Police don't know who started the blaze or exactly why, but they believe the mosque was targeted because terror suspect Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, occasionally worshipped there.
updated 11/28/2010 7:35:49 PM ET 2010-11-29T00:35:49

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.

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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.

Story: Bomb suspect to classmate: 'I hate Americans'

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.

Video: Portrait of Ore. bomb suspect emerges (on this page)

"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 said Corvallis, a college town about 75 miles southwest of Portland, has long been accepting of Muslims.

Image: Mosque in Corvallis, Ore.
Steve Dykes  /  AP
The Salman Al-Farisi Center in Corvallis, Ore. is seen on Saturday, the day before it was struck by an arson fire. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, attended this center.

"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. A $10,000 reward was 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.

Video: Arson at bomb plot suspect's Mosque (on this page)

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.

Story: Bomb suspect to classmate: 'I hate Americans'

"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.

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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.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Portrait of Ore. bomb suspect emerges

  1. Closed captioning of: Portrait of Ore. bomb suspect emerges

    >>> the young man accused of plotting to set off a bomb in portland will appear in federal court tomorrow. jim forman of king-tv has the latest from portland . good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, natalie. federal prosecutors say they have diffused the tree lighting terror plot. now local muslim leaders want to diffuse tension as we learn more about the plan to blow up a bomb mere in downtown portland . authorities in corvallis, oregon are investigating a fire at a local islamic center as a possible hate crime. it's home to the mosque where alleged bomb plott mohamud worshipped. he was going to use a van rigged with explosives to attack a christmas tree lighting. what he didn't know was he was working with undercover agents and the bomb was a dud. leaders in the muslim community feared his arrest would trigger a backlash.

    >> this is a mosque that's been here 40 years. it's more american than the majority of the population and the majority of infrastructure of the united states . we're deeply grieved.

    >> reporter: members of the mosque say he had never expressed radical views.

    >> he was an idiot. there was a number of stopping places where he could have said this is not islam. he was an angry kid . i don't know what was going on.

    >> the fbi says he told them he wanted to bomb the tree lighting ceremony, frustrated he couldn't get overseas to join in jihad. they asked him, you know there's going fob a lot of children there, and he answered yes, that's what i'm looking for.

    >> he was highly motivated. he expressed his desire, his motivation to commit violent jihad.

    >> reporter: before the tree lighting ceremony the fbi says he helped them assemble the bomb inside a van. it was inert material and what looked like blasting caps and detonating cord. they were all fake. mohamud was often seen here at his parents portland area apartments.

    >> i wish we would have known what kind of boy he was. it scares the kids to think what would have happened if it all went through.

    >> reporter: today his mother emerged from seclusion but had nothing to say to reporters. again, authorities today were quick to point out that they are confident mohamud was acting alone and there are no other terror plots at work out there. natalie.

    >> jim forman in portland , oregon.