Pittsburgh, PA – A Syrian refugee was arrested by federal agents on Wednesday morning for allegedly plotting to bomb a church as a show of support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the attack was scheduled to take place at Legacy International Worship Center in July, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
The church sits in a residential neighborhood on Wilson Avenue.
Mustafa Mousab Alowemer, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee who immigrated to the U.S. in 2016, was arrested by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force on Wednesday morning.
Alowemer has been charged with two counts of distributing information relating to an explosive device or weapon of mass destruction, and one count of attempting to provide material support and resources to ISIS, WTAE reported.
Michael Anthony Day, the church’s pastor, said that he received a call on Wednesday that the church had been placed on a terrorist attack watch list, and that the suspect involved was already under arrest, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“I am grateful nothing did happen and I’m grateful that we are able to show that God covered us and protected us and that people are still alive, and that people are able to hug their children and loved ones,” Day told WTAE.
The FBI began monitoring Alowemer’s online activity in April of 2018, after he made a jihadist post on an internet bulletin board, NBC News reported.
Investigators learned that the suspect was communicating with an ISIS supporter in Wisconsin who they were also investigating, according to court documents.
That suspect has since pleaded guilty to attempting to provide support to a terrorist organization, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
An FBI employee posing as an ISIS “brother” began communicating with Alowemer online in March, according to court documents.
Alowemer told the undercover employee that he wanted to meet other ISIS members, offered to provide information on potential targets for attacks in Pittsburgh, and expressed his desire to “answer the call for jihad,” investigators said.
The following month, the undercover FBI employee put Alowemer in contact with an undercover FBI agent and another confidential source, according to court documents.
The trio met up on April 16, and Alowemer presented his ideas for potential attacks on Shia Muslims and Yazidis.
He also said he had spotted a U.S. soldier alone in the woods, and that he believed he could kill him.
“He killed our sisters in Baghuz and in Iraq,” Alowemer allegedly told them. “Why should we stay quiet?”
Alowemer offered to drive the undercover operatives around the city to take a look at some of the targets he was considering.
In the weeks that followed, Alowemer began narrowing his focus for the attack, and also sent one of the undercover operatives instructional guides for building bombs.
He told them that he selected the “Nigerian” church because “all of them are Mushrikeen [polytheist Christians],” and said that the bombing would be revenge for “our brothers in Nigeria,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
Alowemer presented the undercover operatives with Google satellite maps of the target location, and said that the bomb would be inside a backpack he would place near a wall outside the church, WTAE reported.
He told them he planned to detonate that device by remote control, and that a second explosive device would be timed to detonate after police were already on the scene.
“After two hours, three hours when the police want to come — then when they’ve all come together. They’ll have to lock down the whole Pittsburgh,” he allegedly said.
Alowemer said he would display an ISIS flag at the scene prior to the bombing in order to claim credit, as well as a sign that would announce, “We have arrived,” WTAE reported.
On June 11, the would-be bomber met with the undercover operatives again to show them the materials he had purchased, including ice packs, acetone, and batteries, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The trio then went to the church to check for security cameras and to identify potential escape routes, and made plans to meet one more time before carrying out the July attack.
On Sunday and Monday, Alowemer was spotted buying six boxes of nails, which investigators said he may have planned to use as shrapnel, WTAE reported.
He was arrested when he showed up for his final meeting with the undercover operatives on Wednesday morning, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
According to federal prosecutors, Alowemer recently graduated from a local high school, but is not a legal permanent resident of the U.S. and does not hold a U.S. passport, NBC News reported.
In the wake of the would-be bomber’s arrest, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto released a statement thanking law enforcement and vowing to continue welcoming “all refugees and immigrants,” according to WTAE.
“Pittsburgh has historically been a home for refugees and immigrants and will continue to be one,” Peduto declared.
“In debates over the refugee crisis the past several years, as people from around the world have sought to flee violence and misery and seek better lives for their families in the United States, I have always been consistent in our message: we welcome all refugees and immigrants, and we oppose hate against anyone in any form, and we also cooperate with law enforcement whenever legitimate and dangerous crimes are threatening us,” the mayor said.
“Today, unfortunately, those threats come from everywhere,” he added. “The City of Pittsburgh will continue to welcome newcomers to our city and nation, while diligently working with federal law enforcement and others to keep us safe, and to eradicate all attempts to threaten and terrify us.”
U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania Scott Brady said Alowemer’s arrest is a “visible demonstration” of law enforcement’s dedication to “rooting out terrorists and bringing them to justice.”
Brady noted that the positive results of such efforts often go unnoticed by the public.
“Our top priority is protecting the citizens of western Pennsylvania,” he added. “Every day investigators and prosecutors work tirelessly behind the scenes to disrupt terrorist activity and keep our community safe.”
Alowemer is scheduled to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy for preliminary and detention hearings on Friday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.