(CNSNews.com) – A 21-year-old Syrian refugee inspired by ISIS is due to appear in federal court in Pittsburgh Friday on charges relating to a plot to blow up a church in the city, apparently selected as a target because it has Nigerian congregants.
Having first ruled out attacking Yezidi and Shi’ite targets in Pittsburgh, Mustafa Mousab Alowemer settled on the Legacy International Worship Center – according to court documents – in order to “take revenge for our brothers in Nigeria.”
Nigerian Islamists belonging to what was formerly known as Boko Haram – a declared ISIS affiliate since 2015 – have been waging a bloody jihad against the country’s Christians for more than a decade. With the help of neighboring states, and U.S. counterterrorism support, Nigerian security forces have made gains against the terrorists over recent years.
Alowemer was born in Dara’a, Syria, arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in August 2016 and just recently graduated from a Pittsburgh high school. He came to the FBI’s attention because of Internet posts and after he communicated online in April and May last year with a known ISIS supporter in Wisconsin, who was herself already under surveillance.
According to court documents, the ISIS supporter in Wisconsin allegedly collected and distributed “information on how to make explosives and biological weapons.” (She was later arrested and pleaded guilty in federal court in Wisconsin earlier this year to providing material support to ISIS.)
Between April 16 and June 11 this year, Alowemer met several times with an individual he believed to be a fellow ISIS sympathizer, but who was an undercover FBI agent.
At the June 11 meeting he provided details about the plot to bomb the church, provided some materials he had bought to make the bomb, and printouts of Google satellite maps he had marked to identify the location of the church and escape routes.
According to a Department of Justice statement, Alowemer’s “motivation to detonate a device at the church was to support the cause of ISIS and to inspire other ISIS supporters in the United States to join together and commit similar acts in the name of ISIS.”
“Alowemer was aware that numerous people in or around the church could be killed by the explosion.”
In the course of Alowemer’s contacts with undercover FBI agent and/or with an “online covert employee” – another FBI employee, whom Alowemer believed to be an ISIS supporter based outside the U.S. – he discussed potential targets in Pittsburgh:
--Yazidis: According to court documents, Alowemer told the “online covert employee” in April that Yazidis “are here in big numbers,” and described them as “enemies of Allah.”
(Yazidis are a non-Muslim religious minority viciously targeted by ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Around 900 Iraqi Yazidis and 51 Syrian Yazidis have been resettled in the U.S. as refugees over the last five years.)
He offered to provide information on the whereabouts of Yazidis if ISIS “brothers” wanted to take revenge against them for “our brothers from al-Baghuz.” Al-Baghuz in eastern Syria was the final foothold of ISIS territory until its fall in March this year.
--Shia Muslims: In interactions with the undercover FBI agent Alowemer spoke of the possibility of a violent attack against a Shia mosque, but later ruled it out because he observed that it was fitted with security cameras, was located near a police station, and because he learned that some Sunnis worship there, making it an inappropriate target.
--Legacy International Worship Center: Alowemer described the targeted place of worship as a “Nigerian” church, and said attacking it would be in “revenge for our brothers in Nigeria.”
A spokesperson for the Legacy International Worship Center explained in an email that it was a “multicultural church with congregants of different origins. It is not a ‘Nigerian church.’”
--A U.S. soldier: Alowemer also mentioned to his interlocutors that he had seen a soldier alone in the forest, and pondered on the possibility of killing him.
“He killed our sisters in Baghuz and in Iraq,” he explained, apparently in justification.
According to court documents Alowemer recorded a video of himself, pledging an oath of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The church attack was being planned for July.
Alowemer was arrested on Wednesday and charged with one count of attempting to provide material support to ISIS, and two counts of distributing information about making bombs in relation to the planned assault.
“Targeting places of worship is beyond the pale, no matter what the motivation,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers. “The defendant is alleged to have plotted just such an attack of a church in Pittsburgh in the name of ISIS.”
In a brief statement on Facebook the targeted church’s pastor, Michael Anthony Day, expressed gratitude to God for having “thwarted such a tragedy, protecting our congregation and Northside community.”
“The terrorist was apprehended earlier today and all ISIS operations for planned attacked has been destroyed,” he said. “Please know that God is getting the Glory out of this! The Devil is defeated and God is Exulted!”