Pittsburgh church bomb plot suspect had several targets, authorities say
In the days before and after his June 8 graduation from Pittsburgh’s Brashear High School, 21-year-old Mustafa Mousab Alowemer was planning something catastrophic, federal authorities contend.
He received his diploma on Saturday during a ceremony at the Petersen Events Center. On Tuesday, authorities said, he met with two men he believed were fellow ISIS sympathizers. They’d met three times prior, discussing plans for a terrorist attack Alowemer hoped would inspire other ISIS “brothers” in the United States to carry out similar attacks, according to a criminal complaint.
At this June 11 meeting, Alowemer produced the supplies he’d procured: 9-volt batteries, ice packs and nail polish remover, for the acetone, officials said. He apologized for having not bought nails yet — he asked if ball bearings might suffice.
Days later, surveillance caught him buying six packs of nails from various stores in the city, authorities said.
From there, he and the men — one an undercover FBI agent and the other a confidential informant — allegedly drove to Alowemer’s suspected target: A small church tucked on a quiet street in the city’s North Side.
As details of the thwarted alleged terrorist plot emerged after the announcement of Alowemer’s arrest Wednesday, they painted a portrait of a young man bent on pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State in the form of widespread violence. He wanted to die a martyr, authorities said, specifically hoping to be blown up.
Alowemer was born in Syria and, according to his online postings, raised in Jordan “on loving the Jihad,” authorities said. He claimed he met some “Jordanian brothers,” and he was arrested alongside them three times, according to the complaint.
Wasi Mohamed, an advocate and former director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said the notion of Jihad has been co-opted by “pseudo-Islamic movements.” In its purest original sense, the term refers to a struggle for internal betterment.
“Jihad has a lot more to do with me making sure I wake up for morning prayers than it does with anything violent,” he said. “It has more to do with personal development and protecting the community.”
When militant Islamists use the term to promote violent struggle, it “perverts a beautiful concept that is about self-control and piety and uses it to push political ends,” Mohamed said. “My Sunni mosque is as much of a target for that misguided group of extremists than a church or a synagogue.”
He said faith and geopolitics are not the same thing.
About a year ago, Alowemer and his family moved to Northview Heights from a public housing project just down the street from the church that was the alleged target of the bomb plot, several neighbors told the Tribune-Review.
One man recalled seeing Alowemer often hanging out with his friends and siblings on Wilson Avenue. He said Alowemer seemed like a generally happy young man and would constantly talk about how much he loved soccer.
Gary Shaw, 63, who lived a few houses away from Alowemer’s former home in Perry South, said he was familiar with his parents, who were friendly and polite. He’d often come home from work to find the pair sitting on their front porch. They’d invite him over for tea. Shaw didn’t know Alowemer.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said the suspected plot was not about faith.
“He believed Nigerian Christians worshipped there, and that was the target because of geopolitical differences in Nigeria,” he said Thursday.
Peduto said there is no evidence that Alowemer was part of a cell or that he was associated with others. A refugee who settled in Pittsburgh in 2016, he went through the entire vetting process, the mayor said.
He stressed that the accusations should not create ill will toward the refugee community in Pittsburgh — but he knows it could. Thursday was World Refugee Day, a day deemed by the United Nations to raise awareness about and support refugees. Pittsburgh will celebrate Friday with a gathering in Market Square. Peduto said there will be increased security.
“Given the rhetoric that has been displayed over the past 24 hours and the hate speech that has followed, it warrants extra (police) presence tomorrow,” he said.
Pittsburgh, he said, will continue to be an open city that welcomes refugees.
The Legacy International Worship Center, a Christian church with red paint peeling from its double front doors, was decided upon after Alowemer ruled out other potential targets. He had considered a Shia mosque but later discovered it had security measures, plus Sunni Muslims worshipped there as well.
The church is about 11⁄2 miles from where Alowemer lived in the city’s Northview Heights section. The front of the apartment is well-manicured, with colorful flowers in pots outside the door. A woman who lives two doors down from him said he lived there with family, all of whom were kind and polite. She declined to give her name.
In online messages to the undercover employee, he also pondered targeting the local population of Yazidis — an ethnic Kurdish minority native to Turkey, Iraq and Syria, authorities said. In an April 4 message, he remarked on their large Pittsburgh population.
“I want you to tell the brothers here that the Yazidis, the enemies of Allah, have big celebrations and that they are here in big numbers,” he allegedly wrote. Authorities said he alluded to giving the locations of those celebrations to other ISIS “brothers” should they want to target them.
He landed on the Wilson Avenue church, “Christian and Nigerian,” as he described it, so he could “take revenge for our (ISIS) brothers in Nigeria,” according to the complaint.
The church, established in 2015, is described on its website as a “local community of baptized believers unified through faith in Christ.” The church and its congregation seek “to bring the Gospel to the world.”
A federal agent posing as an ISIS supporter outside the United States began communicating with Alowemer online in March, according to the complaint. He allegedly passed on ISIS propaganda materials regularly, and he offered information on potential attack targets in Pittsburgh.
In mid-April, he began communicating via messaging applications with another undercover agent, and they communicated nearly every day from then until Alowemer’s arrest Wednesday. They first met in person April 16, where the undercover agent also brought a confidential source. They met for more than three hours, and each of the next three meetings would last several hours as well.
The plan was minimalist, involving two vehicles and a backpack full of explosives, according to the complaint. The confidential source would be in one car, keeping an eye on the nearby Zone 1 police station. The undercover agent, in another car, would drop off Alowemer near the church. The explosives would be on a timer, set to go off 10 minutes after Alowemer left the backpack, authorities said.
They’d then head to a mosque so they could be seen at morning prayers, according to the complaint. The timer would be set to 10 minutes so they’d be close enough to hear the explosion as they drove away.
Alowemer suggested a second explosive, one that would target first responders, according to the complaint. He provided maps of the area around the church, plus information on bomb-making and explosives.
Asked by the undercover agent how it would be known ISIS perpetrated the attack, Alowemer suggested leaving a flag or a sign with the words “we arrived,” authorities said.
Three days after that fourth meeting, Alowemer arranged another meet-up with the undercover FBI employees, according to the complaint — it was set for June 19, where Alowemer was arrested by federal agents. He is scheduled to appear Friday for a preliminary hearing in federal court in Pittsburgh.
“Though this recent situation is complex and still unfolding, the allegations should be taken very seriously,” Mohamed said. “For someone in our own community to plan to bomb a church and contemplate bombing a Sunni mosque and a black church in the city is horrifying and heartbreaking.”