Arsonist torches Pulse nightclub killer's mosque in Fort Pierce


A fire overnight heavily-damaged the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, a mosque once-attended by the Pulse nightclub killer and another American terrorist.

The St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office said later the fire is the work of an arsonist.

Investigators say the person involved is shown on surveillance video.

The video shows a man riding up to the mosque on a motorcycle, possibly a Harley-Davidson.

Investigators say the individual approached the east side of the building, holding some sort of fluid. Moments later, there's a flash and the fire begins.

The man left the mosque in a hurry after the fire started. Investigators believe he may be injured because he was shaking his hand while leaving the scene.

The first crews on scene reported seeing flames shooting through the roof of the mosque on Midway Road, around 12:30 a.m. Authorities say no one was hurt, but the fire caused substantial damage to the mosque, inside and out.

Firefighters had the fire extinguished about five hours later.

The suspect is either a white or Hispanic male. He may have worn blue jeans with distinctive embroidery on his back pockets.

Leaders of the mosque told CBS12 in June they had been receiving threats. Some threatened to burn it down. Security was stepped up back then.

Omar Mateen, the man who federal authorities say killed dozens of people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, went to the mosque. He was killed by police in a shootout after the mass shooting in June.

Moner Mohammad Abu Salha, the American Taliban who became a suicide bomber in Syria, also went to the mosque.

The FBI twice investigated Mateen for terrorist ties, including connections to Abu Salha. The FBI said it determined the connection between Mateen and Abu Salha to be "minimal" and not a "substantive relationship or threat at that time."

Mateen lived in Fort Pierce and once worked for a security firm in Palm Beach Gardens. Just last week, the state of Florida fined G4S Secure Solutions $151,400 for falsely listing psychological testing information on forms that allowed employees to carry guns, according to The Associated Press. One of the forms belonged to Mateen.

In July, police arrested a suspect on a hate crime charge for assaulting a man in the parking lot of the mosque. The suspect, identified as Taylor Mazzanti, reportedly said during the attack, "You Muslims need to go back to where you came from." The attack is caught on camera.

Mosque leaders on Monday said the center was expecting over 100 people to attend a festival marking the start of Eid al-Adha Monday morning before the fire damaged the building.

"It is with a very heavy heart that we have to announce that last night around midnight, there was an arson attack on our Mosque," wrote the Islamic Center on Facebook.

The holiday, translated as Festival of Sacrifice, honors the religious figure Ibrahim and his willingness to sacrifice his son to God before an angel interceded. This year the festival begins on September 12, the day after the 15-year anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

The center is moving the festival to a Masjid located at 4000 U.S. 1 in Fort Pierce.

The arson is under investigation with help from the St. Lucie County Fire District, the Florida State Fire Marshal's Office, the BATF and the FBI.

The ACLU says anti-Muslim sentiment has spiked since the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in 2015. According to the ACLU, Florida is one of more than a dozen states where there have been five or more anti-mosque incidents since 2015.

Late Monday, the Anti-Defamation League of Florida condemned the arson attack. ADL Regioal Director Hava L. Holzhauer issued this statement:

While the investigation into this incident is still underway, the congregation should know that it is not alone. Whenever a house of worship is desecrated, it results in a ripple effect of fear throughout the community. Intentionally damaging a house of worship in Florida already carries an enhanced penalty, and if the investigation reveals that the mosque was targeted based on religion, this incident should be prosecuted as a hate crime. We commend St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office, as well as all of the responding agencies for quickly responding to this serious incident.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, says leaders plan to rebuild the mosque, but due to "substantial damage" leaders have not been able to access the crime scene to assess the damage. They're also calling for peace.

“There are certain politicians that are peddling bigotry and hatred that are pointing the fingers, whether it’s at Muslims or Mexicans or others, and they’re misinforming the public,” said Ahmed Bedier. “We need people to bring us together, not divide us.”

A vigil is being planned for Thursday, Sept. 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the mosque. Organizers want people to bring candles, cards, flowers and words of encouragement.

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