A young Muslim refugee living in Pittsburgh plotted to blow up a Pittsburgh church next month to “instill fear in the hearts” of Christians and make them fear going to church, according to the FBI.
Mustafa Mousab Alowemer, 21, who came to the U.S. from Syria as a refugee in 2016, was arrested Wednesday morning by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Mr. Alowemer planned to bomb a Christian church called Legacy International Worship Center on Wilson Avenue, Pittsburgh, according to the FBI, with the assistance of someone he believed was another ISIS member but was actually an undercover FBI employee.
Post-Gazette report: He met with the employee and another FBI source several times in recent months as the plot developed and in June drove both of them to the church to show them the target and decide where to place a homemade backpack bomb, according to a federal complaint.
His motivation was to support the Islamic State and inspire other sympathizers in the U.S. to join to together to commit similar crimes, the FBI said.
After rejecting other potential targets in Pittsburgh, including a Shia mosque, Mr. Alowemer chose the Wilson Avenue church to “take revenge for our [ISIS] brothers in Nigeria,” the complaint said. He described the church as Christian and Nigerian.
He was going to meet with his supposed collaborators one more time Wednesday to finalize plans for the attack, set for July, when agents took him into custody.
He is charged with attempting to provide support to the Islamic State and two counts of distributing information relating to an explosive device in connection with the bomb plot.
Michael Anthony Day, pastor at the church, said the FBI called him Wednesday morning to say the church had been placed on a terrorist attack watch list and that Mr. Alowemer had been arrested.
He said he was “grateful God protected us…We have a growing church and we’re happy to be alive.”
He said he plans to meet with the FBI to learn more about the case and ensure the safety of church members and the community.
“How can we make sure our congregation is comforted that this can’t happen or won’t happen,” he said, “or that he doesn’t have any friends to keep these attacks going?”
Mayor Bill Peduto said news of the plot was especially alarming “due to the suspect’s alleged target of yet another place of worship in our city, like the Tree of Life synagogue, which should be peaceful places of refuge and reflection that are free of threats of violence.”
This is how the case developed, according to the FBI:
In April 2018 the bureau identified a social networking site used by Mr. Alowemer in which he expressed a desire to commit violence in the name of the Islamic State. He also began communicating with “Person 1” in Wisconsin, a fellow Islamic State supporter who has pleaded guilty in Wisconsin to attempting to provide support to a terrorist organization.
In March, he began communicating online with a covert FBI employee who posed as an Islamic State “brother.” In those conversations, all in Arabic, he said he wanted to “answer the call for jihad,” wanted to meet other Islamic State members and offered to provide information about targets in Pittsburgh.
In April, the covert FBI employee put him in contact with an undercover FBI employee and another person described in the complaint as a confidential source.
Mr. Alowemer offered to provide information on local Kurdish Yazidi families so fellow Islamic State “brothers” could attack them out of revenge for “our brothers in al-Baghuz.”
Yazidis are ethnic Kurds often targeted by Islamic State radicals. Al-Baghuz is a town in Syria where Kurdish-led Syrian forces assisted by the U.S. battled with Islamic State fighters in February and March. The Islamic State lost control of that part of Syria.
Mr. Alowemer said he was excited to meet the undercover FBI employee. They met April 16 in Pittsburgh, along with the confidential source, during which Mr. Alowemer discussed opportunities for attacking Yazidis, Shia Muslims and a lone U.S. soldier.
In regard to the military member, Mr. Alowemer said he had seen a soldier in the woods by himself and could kill him.
“He killed our sisters in Baghuz and in Iraq,” he said. “Why should we stay quiet?”
The FBI employee gave him a cell phone for future secure communications and Mr. Alowemer offered to drive the two FBI operatives around Pittsburgh to look at potential targets.
At a meeting April 25, Mr. Alowemer decided against the Shia mosque because it had too much security but reiterated his desire to carry out a bomb attack and escape to Syria.
“When we have a goal, we can leave a book bag or something,” he said, referring to a bomb.
Mr. Alowemer later began discussing carrying out bomb attacks using a timer and sent the undercover operative instructional materials on how to make bombs, including one called “Beginners Course for Young Mujahadeen.”
Mr. Alowemer and the FBI operatives met again June 2, when he identified a “Nigerian” church for an attack. He said he chose the church because “all of them are Mushrikeen [polytheist Christians]” and to take revenge for “our brothers in Nigeria.”
He spelled out his plans, talked about planting a second bomb to kill responding police and presented Google satellite maps of the church.
At a fourth meeting June 11, he provided additional details about the plot and presented bomb-making materials he had bought, including batteries, acetone and ice packs.
He also drove the FBI operatives to the church to case it and said he would conduct further surveillance on his bicycle to check on security cameras and the best spot to place the bomb.
He said he wanted to meet with them one more time, on Wednesday, to finalize the plans.
Mr. Alowemer is in custody and is to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy on Friday for a preliminary hearing and a detention hearing.