Local and federal authorities are investigating fires at two south Minneapolis mosques this week as potential hate crimes, and are asking for the public’s help as the suspects remain at large.
No arrests have been made in fires at the Masjid Omar Islamic Center and Masjid Al Rahma Sunday and Monday, respectively. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting in the investigations, according to Minneapolis police.
Abdirahman Omar, the imam at Masjid Al Rahma, which is located in the Mercy Islamic Center building, was among the building’s approximately 100 occupants who were evacuated Monday evening as a fire spread on the third floor. The floor was covered in black soot and smelled strongly of smoke Tuesday afternoon while the second floor was covered in water and debris.
“This is not just an attack on our mosque, but an attack on our community,” Abdirahman said Tuesday. “We won’t be intimidated. We will stay calm and united during this difficult time.”
In a prepared statement, Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara said it’s unknown if the fires are due to arson, which is a criminal act, or other causes.
“Again, at this point, we do not know if today’s fire was arson,” O’Hara said in the statement. “We are assuming that it is arson and that both fires are connected until proven otherwise. We will evaluate any possibility of biased or hate crimes provided under the law, and because this occurred in an occupied place of worship, potential prosecution for a federal offense.”
O’Hara also addressed the fires at a press conference Tuesday afternoon attended by several dozen people, including a number of imams from around the metro.
“There’s a lot of obviously heinous crimes that happen in our city, but certainly any of those that we suspect may be motivated by bias or hate are certainly something that we need to deal with absolutely urgently,” O’Hara said.
The first incident occurred Sunday when congregants at Masjid Omar Islamic Center, a mosque located inside 24 Somali Mall, called police about 7:16 p.m. for a fire in the mosque’s bathroom, according to Minneapolis police.
The congregants put out the fire before it could spread and followed the suspect out before authorities arrived at the scene, said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Hussein added that the suspect brought in five gallons of flammable fluid.
Minneapolis police posted five still images of the alleged suspect on its Facebook page, showing a person wearing eyeglasses, a surgical face mask, a dark-colored stocking cap, and dark-colored clothing. In other pictures taken on a different day, the person is wearing different clothing.
O’Hara said the same person identified as a “possible suspect” in the fire is also a suspect in prior unreported vandalism that occurred on different days at 24 Somali Mall. The chief said police learned of those incidents during their fire investigation, but did not elaborate further.
The second fire occurred Monday evening at Masjid Al Rahma, located in Mercy Islamic Center building less than one mile from Masjid Omar Islamic Center. O’Hara said the cause of that fire is unknown.
The fire at Masjid Al Rahma occurred on the third floor, which houses business offices it leases out. The fire caused extensive damage in the third floor and second floor hallways that Jaylani said could cost $50,000 to repair.
Bahikoro Kouyate, a security guard who works at Mercy Islamic Center, said he was entering the mosque Monday and taking off his shoes when he noticed smoke in the nearby hallway. Roughly 50 children were in a daycare two floors below where the fire occurred, and Kouyate said he quickly evacuated them and others and then ran to the fire department across the street for help.
In all, roughly 100 people in the building were safely evacuated, Kouyate said, adding that nobody was injured. He credited firefighters and police for responding right away to put out the fire and address the emergency.
“If they didn’t come immediately, it would have been a disaster,” Kouyate said.
Yusuf Abdulle, executive director of Islamic Association of North America, said the two fires have been very difficult for the community.
“Mosques are sanctuaries,” Yusuf said. “This is where we come to feel peace. This is where we come to feel close to God.”
Police are asking that anyone who recognizes the person in the photographs to contact them at email@example.com, or to leave a voicemail at 612-673-5845.
Mercy Islamic Center is also planning to hold a community solidarity event this coming Saturday at 7 p.m. to gather community support.