The man accused of plotting to bomb a North Side church made his first appearance in federal court Friday morning. After hearing testimony from an FBI agent, federal Magistrate Judge Cynthia Eddy found there was probable cause to keep Mustafa Mousab Alowemer behind bars.
*This post was updated at 12:51 p.m. on Friday, June 21, 2019 to include more information from the hearing.
Federal prosector Soo Song led FBI special agent Gary Morgan through a recitation of facts cited in the federal government’s complaint against Alowemer, a 21-year-old refugee from Syria. Morgan recounted events that ranged from the initial online contact this past spring to an interview after his arrest on Wednesday.
Morgan said that when undercover agents began to communicate with the suspect, “He responded immediately, frequently, and with great enthusiasm.”
Alowemer devised a plan to bomb Legacy International Worship Center, purchasing bomb-making materials and providing maps to an undercover agent posing as an Islamic State sympathizer, law enforcement officials said. And when law enforcement searched the suspect’s apartment in the city’s Northview Heights housing complex, they turned up items that appeared in a video where he professed loyalty to the Islamic State terrorist group, including a mask and a printed copy of the group’s flag.
Morgan said that during the post-arrest interview, the suspect “stated he felt pressured in some way” to undertake the bombing, but also that he felt an “inner drive to carry out this attack.”
A translator was on hand throughout the morning’s proceeding, though Alowemer’s court-appointed federal defender questioned the translation services provided to him during the FBI interview.
Attorney Sam Saylor also characterized his client as “a young man … engaged in puffery, engaged in bragging,” who was unable to carry out such an attack on his own. While a criminal complaint noted that Alowemer had purchased materials that could be used in bomb-making – including nail polish remover containing acetone, nails, batteries, and ice packs – Saylor said buying common items was not a “substantial step” toward committing a terrorist act.
Song, the federal prosecutor, countered that the suspect had expressed his intentions four separate times to underover agents and that the actions in the complaint represented a “very long course of conduct.”
On the stand, Morgan said that “the plan was Mr. Alowemer’s from beginning to end.”
The suspect himself, clad in an oversized orange jumpsuit and shackled by hand and foot, remained downcast from the moment he entered the courtroom. His mother was joined by other women wearing traditional veils, some of whom were crying, in the courtroom.
He was led off by federal marshalls: His next hearing will likely be a formal arraignment at which he will enter a plea to charges of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State and distributing information relating to an explosive device.
As Alowemer's court appearance ended, Pittsburgh kicked off its annual World Refugee Day celebration at Market Square.
Pastor Michael Day, who oversees Legacy International Worship Center, attended the celebration. According to the criminal complaint, Alowemer planned to bomb Day's church on behalf of ISIS because he believed it had a large Nigerian presence. But Day said the church does not have a Nigerian community.
"We are a diverse church, but there is not a Nigerian ministry at all," Day said.
Day said the church will now take extra security measures, including having a police presence for Sunday's services.
"We are setting up trainings now, not for only our congregation but other ministries, mosques around the city with organizations, as well as the community," he said.
Mayor Bill Peduto also attended the event. He said some refugees were frightened by news of the plot and by anti-immigrant reactions to it.
"The rhetoric of hate that surrounds that message" could make them feel unwelcomed, Peduto said. "I will never make that mistake ... I think I have a role as the mayor to speak out and to make sure that people who don't feel welcome realize that this is their home."
Peduto said no one brought up the arrest during the Market Square eveent, but he is sure it is in "the front of everyone's mind."
One vendor, Grace Mrema, who is from Tanzania and has lived in Pittsburgh for six years, said she had just heard about the arrest.
"There's always going to be those kinds of crazy people," she said. "What we need to do is just be careful, and when we hear something, report it right away. But I don't stop doing what I need to do because I'm scared of someone like that. Something can happen anywhere at any time. That doesn't stop me, but I'm glad he got arrested."