A Syrian refugee who came to the U.S. three years ago plotted to bomb a church this spring to inspire followers of the Islamic State of Iraq, federal authorities said in announcing the man's arrest Wednesday.
*This story was updated at 12:31 p.m. on June 20, 2019 to include more information.
A criminal complaint alleges Mustafa Mousab Alowemer planned to bomb Legacy International Worship Center, a church on Pittsburgh's North Side, and purchased materials he thought were necessary to build a bomb. He also allegedly provided plans and a map to an undercover FBI agent he thought was a fellow Islamic State supporter.
"Targeting places of worship is beyond the pale, no matter what the motivation," Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in a statement. "The defendant is alleged to have plotted just such an attack of a church in Pittsburgh in the name of ISIS.
The 21-year-old Alowemer, a Pittsburgh resident, is charged with one count of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and two counts of distributing information relating to an explosive device or weapon of mass destruction.
Alowemer was born in Daraa, Syria and came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2016, according to the FBI. The federal court docket didn't list an attorney for Alowemer and the Department of Justice didn't return a message seeking whether he had an attorney who could comment on the charges announced Wednesday.
According to the criminal complaint, Alowemer met several times between April and June with the undercover FBI agent and an FBI source. During one of the meetings, Alowemer allegedly provided plot details, bomb materials he'd purchased and printed copies of Google satellite maps with markings showing the location of the church plus arrival and escape routes.
Alowemer planned to carry out the bombing next month by delivering the explosives in a backpack, according to the complaint.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke with reporters Thursday morning about the charges. And he pushed back on any suggestion that the city should be warier about accepting refugees – a position taken by some critics Peduto had engaged with on social media after the arrest was announced.
“Once you start getting rid of America being a welcoming country, you start to get rid of what America is based upon,” he said.
Alowemer had been living in Northview Heights, a city Housing Authority development that serves as home to many refugees placed in the area. Peduto said residents there, including the suspect, were vetted by federal authorities, as all refugees are.
“Northview Heights has become a primary housing option for many from around the world where refugees are fleeing,” Peduto said. “The crime rate in Northview heights has gone down, not up, since the refugee resettlement has taken off.”
Peduto said he had no knowledge of the potential threat that Alowemer posed until yesterday, and that indications were that he was acting alone.
“We treat it like we treat any type of threat or crime that happens in this city,” he said. “We don’t isolate it because this person was Muslim, and we wouldn’t isolated it if the person was Christian or Jewish.”
He said there had been no requests for additional security at houses of worship since the incident. But he said there would be stepped-up security for events tied to International Refugee Day tomorrow.
Pittsburgh is still reeling from last year’s Tree of Life shooting, in which the accused gunman was allegedly motivated by hatred for refugees and efforts to settle them. And Peduto said similar rhetoric had been stirred up by Wednesday’s arrest.
“You’ll probably see a police presence at the event, which is very unfortunate,” Peduto said. “[I]t’s a peaceful event, but given the rhetoric that has been displayed over the last 24 hours and the hate speech that has followed, it warrants extra presence.”