Pittsburgh bomb plot only ‘puffery and bragging,’ says suspect’s attorney
As federal prosecutors laid out evidence Friday of a Syrian refugee’s alleged plot to bomb a North Side church in the name of ISIS, the man’s defense attorneys attempted to downplay his actual capabilities.
Mustafa Mousab Alowemer, 21, is accused of plotting with two other men – undercover federal agents, it turned out – to blow up the Legacy International Worship Center, a small stone church on a residential street.
His lawyer, Sam Saylor, portrayed Alowemer’s alleged plotting and planning as “puffery and bragging.” He said purchasing supplies one can buy at CVS or a hardware store – acetone nail polish remover, 9-volt batteries, ice packs and nails – doesn’t constitute a real step toward building an explosive.
Alowemer, slight in stature, appeared in court for the preliminary hearing in an orange jumpsuit and shackles. He gave his yes or no answers through an interpreter, who also translated all of the court proceedings.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Eddy held all charges against Alowemer – one count of providing material support to a terrorist organization and two counts of distributing information relating to explosives. He waived his detention hearing and was remanded to the custody of U.S. Marshals.
The 90-minute hearing saw Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song call just one witness, Special Agent Gary Morgan of the Pittsburgh FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Morgan laid out details of the plot and investigation that mirrored those in the 27-page criminal complaint filed Wednesday against Alowemer. He said federal agents first became aware of Alowemer’s online presence in 2018 and began communicating with him directly under the guise of another ISIS supporter earlier this year.
The online undercover agent put Alowemer in contact with another “ISIS brother” – another undercover federal agent. They, along with a confidential informant, developed the plot to bomb the Wilson Street church. Alowemer considered a mosque and other targets before settling on the church because he believed it was attended by Nigerian Christians.
Prosecutors showed two videos that Alowemer had sent the undercover agents. One was of him in a black hoodie with a white mask covering his lower face and speaking confidently in Arabic. Morgan alleged this was Alowemer’s bay’aa – a term he said ISIS supporters use to describe a demonstration of commitment to the extremist group.
The other video shows what appears to be an explosion that takes down multiple buildings, apparently in the Middle East. Morgan said Alowemer sent that video to the men he thought were his “brothers.”
Alowemer was arrested June 19 in what was to be his fifth meeting with undercover agents. They’d met four times prior, Morgan said, and each time Alowemer took the lead on planning and plotting the would-be attack.
“Mr. Alowemer laid out the plan in its entirety,” Morgan said.
Once detained at Pittsburgh’s FBI office on the city’s South Side, Alowemer admitted that he knew what he was doing constituted terrorism, Morgan said. He said the recent Brashear High School graduate also admitted to the online communications and the in-person meetings.
Pressed by Alowemer’s attorney,Morgan said Alowemer was offered an interpreter but turned it down. Morgan said Alowemer told agents he “felt pressured” in some way to commit the acts but also felt an “inner drive.”
Saylor’s questions of the agent focused on whether copies of all correspondence between Alowemer and the undercover agents exist, saying that Alowemer didn’t have the capabilities to build a bomb on his own.
The judge heard only one side of the story, Saylor said, in arguing that prosecutors didn’t have probable cause to charge his client.
The judge disagreed, holding the charges over for trial. Some family members of Alowemer’s cried as he was taken by U.S. Marshals.
In the courtroom along with family, friends and a slew of police and federal agents was Khalifah Al-Akili, a white Muslim convert who gained international attention in 2010 when he was the target of a botched FBI terrorism sting. He was detained in 2012, accused of promoting anti-American violence but had no ties to terrorist organizations.
He was sent to federal prison in 2013 not on terrorism charges but for possessing a firearm as a convicted felon.
As Alowemer was led from the courtroom, Al-Akili shouted what he later said was a verse from the Koran that translated to, “Verily, God is with those who have patience.” He called the case “manufactured” and said authorities were “creating a crime.”
No one associated with the case spoke following the hearing, and U.S. Attorney Scott Brady spoke only briefly and took no questions.
“The threats posed by terrorist organizations are real, and they’re reaching across our borders to spread their ideologies of hate,” Brady said. “We want those who raise these ideologies of hate to know that we will find you, we will prosecute you and we will bring you to justice.”
Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter .