News of the June 19 FBI arrest of a 21-year old man with ties to ISIS, who was charged with planning to bomb a church on the city’s North Side, drew a swift response from members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
The arrest of Mustafa Mousab Alowemer, a refugee from Syria who was resettled in Pittsburgh in 2016, came less than eight months after the deadly Oct. 27 attack on worshippers at the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill.
Alowemer, who recently graduated from Pittsburgh’s Brashear High School, allegedly planned to bomb the Legacy International Worship Center, a small black Christian church where he believed many Nigerians worship, according to the federal criminal complaint. He also discussed with undercover FBI agents the desire to bomb a local mosque that served Shia Muslims, but ultimately decided against it.
“Like many, we were shocked to hear about the thwarted bombing attempt at the church,” said Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community of Greater Pittsburgh. “Our first move was to reach out to Pastor [Michael] Day [of the Legacy International Worship Center] to check on his emotional well-being and that of his congregants. After spending some time visiting with him in church, he and I planned to invite the community to stand in support of the church on Sunday morning as churchgoers entered the sanctuary. He also invited all of us to come for service.”
The JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness penned an open letter of support for the church along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council and Southwest Christian Associates of Western Pennsylvania. The letter, which also cautioned against stereotyping a community based on the actions of a single individual, had accrued 176 signatures by mid-morning, June 23.
The CRC also reached out to Pastor Day to offer support for security and mental health needs soon after receiving news of the thwarted attack.
“So much of what we do at the CRC is outreach and to be there, not only within the Jewish community, but outside the Jewish community,” said Bob Silverman, chair of the CRC. “It’s been pretty horrible over the past year, obviously since Tree of Life, and any opportunity we have to show support–unfortunately for all these horrible reasons–we want to be there for people. We have an understanding and we know all too well what it’s like to be threatened and attacked. We want to be there for them, not only in the short term, but in the long term.”
About 30 people of various faiths showed up to greet congregants at the church Sunday morning. Pittsburgh Police officers provided security.
“I wanted to be here partly to repay the kindness that my congregation, Dor Hadash, received after October 27 and to let the communities who supported us know that we support them,” said Laura Horowitz as she stood at the doorsteps of the church. “And I also wanted to be here because there are no rights unless you can exercise them. If people are afraid to exercise their rights then the rights have been effectively taken away. So, we’re here to make sure that these folks can exercise their right to free practice of religion.”
Mayor Bill Peduto, who urged President Obama in 2015 to increase the number of Syrian refugees permitted in the U.S, reiterated his support for that policy in the hours after Alowemer was arrested.
“Pittsburgh has historically been a home for refugees and immigrants and will continue to be one,” Peduto said in a prepared statement. “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 then noted that threats “come from everywhere.”
“The record shows most terrorists attacking the United States are domestic, such as the man who murdered 11 Tree of Life worshippers in October,” he wrote.
Some on-line comments following local newspaper accounts of Alowemer’s arrest criticized Peduto for his policy on refugees.
But Donna Coufal, the president of Congregation Dor Hadash, one of the three congregations attacked on Oct. 27, said that linking the crime to the accused’s status as a refugee is wrong.
“I think it is really a false narrative,” she said.
America is made up of refugees, she stressed, most of whom abide by the law.
Those who break the law do so “not because they are refugees,” Coufal said. “There is not a refugee problem; there is a hate problem and there is a violence problem.”
Jews, especially, should be sensitive to the dangers of stereotyping an entire community based on the actions of one individual, said Silverman, speaking on his own behalf.
“We would never have wanted that for anybody in our community who had done anything wrong,” he said. “And it’s not fair to stereotype or blame anybody else in their community.”
Pittsburgh’s Jewish Family and Community Services has settled more than 800 refugees here in the last five years, including those from Syria. Alowemer was not one of that agency’s clients, said Iris Valanti, public relations associate at JFCS.
Ironically, just two days after Alowemer’s arrest, a World Refugee Day event was held in Market Square downtown to celebrate Pittsburgh’s refugee and immigrant communities.
The celebration included music, dance performances and refugee testimonies.
The CRC, in an email to the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Council following Alowemer’s arrest, noted that the event, organized by AJAPO Refugee Immigrant Services and co-sponsored by JFCS, was an opportunity for people to “stand with the refugee and immigrant community to show that we understand that the alleged ISIS supporter is an outlier among immigrants and refugees.”
The timing of the World Refugee Day event was “an unfortunate coincidence,” according to Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, in an interview following the program.
Hetfield, who was a featured speaker at the event, said he had wondered if the arrest of Alowemer would affect attendance or the tenor of the celebration, but those concerns were laid to rest when he saw hundreds of enthusiastic supporters there.
Hetfield noted that Peduto appeared at the celebration with Pastor May, “who made it a point to say that he had already forgiven” his would-be attacker. He praised Peduto for reiterating “that every person has to be judged based on his or her own character,” and that communities should not be generalized upon the actions of one individual.
Refugees coming to the U.S. are “vetted to a fault,” Hetfield explained, noting that in addition to being fingerprinted, their biodata is scanned against worldwide intelligence data bases, and they are interrogated by numerous government officials and contractors.
“They don’t get the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “A lot of innocent people are vetted out of the system.”
It is unclear whether Alowemer was radicalized prior to admittance to the U.S. But according to the criminal complaint, in April 2019, Alowemer told an online covert employee for the FBI that he “was raised in Jordan on loving the Jihad and the Mujahdeen [sic]. I met some Jordanian brothers, some of which did the Nafir in Raqqah, and I, alongside some brothers, were arrested three times in Jordan, because I was one of the supporters.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at