Authorities: Arrest made in arson fire at Florida mosque

Credit: NBC News

FORT PIERCE, Fla. (AP) — An arrest has been made in the arson fire that heavily damaged the Florida mosque Orlando nightclub gunman Omar Mateen occasionally attended, a law enforcement official said Wednesday.

St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Bryan Beaty confirmed in an email Wednesday to The Associated Press that an arrest had been made but he declined to disclose any details pending a news conference the agency scheduled later in the evening.

The Islamic Center of Fort Pierce sustained extensive damage in a fire set late Sunday on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. The blaze also coincided with the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.

No one was injured. The fire burned a 10-by-10-foot hole in the roof at the back of the mosque’s main building and blackened its eaves with soot. The Islamic Center of Fort Pierce sustained extensive damage in a fire set late Sunday on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Given the timing, investigators believe the blaze may have been a hate crime, St. Lucie County sheriff’s spokesman Maj. David Thompson has said.

Mateen was killed by police after opening fire at the Pulse nightclub June 12 in a rampage that left 49 victims dead and 53 wounded. He professed allegiance to the Islamic State group. His father is among roughly 100 people who attend the mosque.

A weekend surveillance video from the mosque showed a man on a motorcycle approaching the building with a bottle of liquid and some papers, then leaving when there was a flash and shaking his hand as though he may have burned it, Thompson said. The first 911 calls were made about 45 minutes later after the fire had spread to the attic. It took about 4.5 hours for firefighters to extinguish the blaze.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, he said.

The FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined the investigation into the fire. Sheriff’s officials had released the video and asked for the public’s help in identifying the arsonist.

The fire was part of an escalating series of threats and violence perpetuated against the mosque and its members, said Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, a Florida spokesman for the Council of American-Islamic Relations. He said the mosque began receiving threatening phone calls shortly after the Pulse massacre. And in July, he said, a member was punched in the face as he arrived for morning prayers.

Sunday’s fire has left the mosque’s members “saddened and scared,” said assistant imam Hamaad Rahman.

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