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U.S. Muslims plead for safety after bomb arrest

Muslim leaders urged authorities to step up protection for the region's Islamic community, days after a Somali-American man was accused of trying to carry out a car bomb attack in downtown Portland, Oregon.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Muslim leaders urged authorities to step up protection for the region's Islamic community, days after a Somali-American man was accused of trying to blow up a van full of explosives during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the U.S. state of Oregon.

The plea followed a fire Sunday at the Islamic center where suspect Mohamed Osman Mohamud occasionally worshipped, prompting an FBI arson investigation and concern about the potential for more retaliation.

Somali leaders in Oregon — a state that has been largely accepting of Muslims — gathered with leaders in Portland city on Sunday evening to denounce violence and call for help for at-risk Somali youth.

"We left Somalia because of war, and we would like to live in peace as part of the American community," said Kayse Jama, executive director of a local organization founded after the 9/11 attacks to fight anti-Muslim sentiment. "We are Portlanders. We are Oregonians. We are Americans, and we would like to be treated that way. We are your co-workers, your neighbors."

"We are really sad and outraged," Jama said. He said 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 said he did not know Mohamud, but did know his father, who describing as feeling "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."

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.

Mohamud, 19, 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 Monday afternoon.

His attorney, Stephen R. Sady, who has represented terrorism suspects held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, didn't return a telephone message left Sunday by The Associated Press.

The suspect's mother, Maryan Hassan, declined to discuss the issue when contacted by phone late Sunday by the AP, referring all questions to Sady. His father also refused to comment.

Suspect 'lured' into bomb attempt?
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.

An FBI affidavit said agents began investigating after receiving a tip from an unidentified person who expressed concern about Mohamud.

An agent e-mailed Mohamud, pretending to be affiliated with one of the people overseas whom Mohamud had tried to contact. Undercover agents then set up a series of face-to-face meetings with Mohamud at hotels in Portland and Corvallis.

Authorities said they allowed the plot to proceed to obtain evidence to charge the suspect with attempt.

Jamal said there is concern in the Somali community that Mohamud was "lured into an illegal act."

"Rest assured that the community is very against anyone who tries to do harm to the citizens of this country," he said. But many Somalis in the United States are wondering whether Mohamud's rights were violated by federal agents, he said.

Why "did they tell him to go along with this heinous crime?" Jamal said.

The 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.

Mosque targeted
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.

Mozafar Wanly, father of the imam at the Salman Al-Farisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, said the fact that Mohamud was e-mailing someone in Pakistan shows nobody in the U.S. supported his extremist ideology.

"He's reaching for people outside because he doesn't find any terrorists here," he said.

The fire at the 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.

"We do have evidence that it was arson," Pusateri said.

Authorities don't know who started the blaze or why, but they believe the center was targeted because Mohamud sometimes worshipped 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.

Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon, said there was no conclusive link to the bombing in Portland or specific evidence that it is a hate crime, other than the timing.

There were 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.

"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.