CORVALLIS, Ore. — Someone set fire to an Islamic center on Sunday, two days after a man who worshiped there was accused of trying to blow up a van full of explosives during Portland's Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Other Muslims fear it could be the first volley of misplaced retribution.
The charges against Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-born 19-year-old who was caught in a federal sting operation, are testing tolerance in a state that has been largely accepting of Muslims. Muslims who know the suspect say they are shocked by the allegations against him and that he had given them no hint of falling into radicalism.
The fire at the Salman Al-Farisi Islamic Center in Corvallis was reported at 2:15 a.m., and evidence at the scene led authorities to believe it was set intentionally, said Carla Pusateri, a fire prevention officer for the Corvallis Fire Department.
Authorities don't know who started the blaze or exactly why, but they believe the center was targeted because Mohamud occasionally worshipped there.
"We have made it quite clear that the FBI will not tolerate any kind of retribution or attack on the Muslim community," said Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon.
Mohamud was being held on charges of plotting to carry out a terror attack Friday on a crowd of thousands at Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square. He is scheduled to appear in court today.
On Friday, he parked what he thought was a bomb-laden van near the ceremony and then went to a nearby train station, where he dialed a cell phone that he believed would detonate the vehicle, federal authorities said. Instead, federal authorities moved in and arrested him. No one was hurt.
There were also no injuries in Sunday's fire, which burned 80 percent of the center's office but did not spread to worship areas or any other rooms, said Yosof Wanly, the center's imam.
"We know how it is, we know some people due to ignorance are going to perceive of these things and hold most Muslims accountable," Wanly said. The imam said Corvallis, a college town about 75 miles southwest of Portland, has long been accepting of Muslims.
In Portland, residents are alarmed by the terror plot, but Mayor Sam Adams said they are "not going to let this change our values of being an open and embracing city." He said he beefed up patrols around mosques "and other facilities that might be vulnerable to knuckle-headed retribution" after hearing of the bomb plot.
Authorities have not explained how Mohamud, an Oregon State University student until he dropped out on Oct. 6, became so radicalized. Mohamud graduated from high school in the Portland suburb of Beaverton.
Wanly described him as a normal student who went to athletic events, drank an occasional beer and was into rap music and culture. He described Mohamud as religious, saying he attended prayers in Corvallis once or twice a month over a year and a half.
Wanly, 24, said that in about 15 conversations he had with Mohamud, the teen rarely discussed religion.
Mohamud is among tens of thousands of Somalis who have resettled in the United States since their country plunged into lawlessness in 1991. The U.N.-backed government controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu, the capital, while large parts of Somalia are controlled by the insurgent group Al-Shabab, which vows allegiance to al-Qaida.