Syrian refugee charged with plotting to bomb Pittsburgh church
Federal investigators arrested a Syrian refugee living in Pittsburgh on charges of plotting to bomb a church in the city’s North Side next month to support the terrorist group ISIS, the U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday.
Mustafa Mousab Alowemer, 21, who resided in a Northview Heights housing complex and graduated from a Pittsburgh high school, was admitted to the United States as a refugee in 2016, according to federal authorities. He was arrested Wednesday based on a complaint charging him with supporting a foreign terrorist organization and planning an attack using explosives, prosecutors said.
The plot targeted Legacy International Worship Center, a small black Christian church in a residential area on Wilson Avenue in the Perry South section of Pittsburgh’s North Side, according to the criminal complaint filed against Alowemer.
The foiled plan would have involved three men — one to leave a backpack containing explosives set to a timer at the church, and two others to do surveillance of the street outside and of the closest police station, the complaint said. Authorities have only announced charges against Alowemer.
Church officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The Rev. Michael Anthony Day, the lead pastor and founder of Legacy International Worship Center, asked for prayers and called for peace in a letter he posted to Facebook.
“Gratefully, God thwarted such a tragedy, protecting our congregation and northside community,” the pastor wrote.
Alowemer also discussed the desire to bomb a Pittsburgh-area mosque with practicing Shia Muslims — but he decided against it after realizing the mosque had strong security measures, was located near a police station and that Sunni Muslims worshipped there, too, the complaint said. He chose the North Side church because it included Christians and “Nigerians,” the complaint said.
FBI agent posed as ISIS supporter
Investigators tracked Alowemer via an undercover FBI agent who posed as a fellow ISIS supporter on social networks, the complaint said. The undercover agent had daily communications with Alowemer and met in person with Alowemer four times between April 16 and June 11, the complaint said.
Earlier this month, Alowemer bought “several items with the belief that they were necessary to assemble a destructive device and with the intention that they be used to construct the explosives that would be detonated in the vicinity of the church,” prosecutors said. Among the items: nail polish remover (for the acetone), ice packs, nails and 9-volt batteries.
U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady of the Western District of Pennsylvania announced Alowemer’s arrest with John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security; Michael McGarrity of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division; and Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Jones of the FBI’s Pittsburgh division.
“Targeting places of worship is beyond the pale, no matter what the motivation,” said Demers in a statement. “The defendant is alleged to have plotted just such an attack of a church in Pittsburgh in the name of ISIS.”
McGarrity said court documents show Alowemer’s planned attack “could have killed or injured many people.”
“Fortunately, his plans were foiled by the full force of the FBI Pittsburgh Joint Terrorism Task Force,” McGarrity said.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said in a statement that the city condemns “hate against anyone in any form” while remaining committed as a “home for refugees and immigrants.”
“Unfortunately, those threats come from everywhere,” Peduto said. “The record shows that most terrorists attacking the United States are domestic — such as the man who murdered 11 Tree of Life worshippers in October.
“The city of Pittsburgh will continue to welcome newcomers to our city and nation,” Peduto said, “while diligently working with federal law enforcement and others to keep us safe, and to eradicate all attempts to threaten and terrify us.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools is cooperating fully with the FBI’s investigation, according to a statement from the district’s spokeswoman, Ebony Pugh. Alowemer is listed among the Class of 2019 in a program for Brashear High School’s commencement on June 8.
“While the FBI’s investigation involves a recent graduate of PPS, the investigation centers around a potential terroristic act in the North Side community,” Pugh said. “As this is a federal investigation we have no further comment.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .