Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Public safety

FBI investigating attack threat against St. Petersburg mosque

ST. PETERSBURG — Hatem Jaber listened to the voicemail over and over Saturday morning. By the end of the third playback, he became convinced the threat against the mosque was serious.

"I personally have a militia that's going to come down to your Islamic Society of Pinellas County and firebomb you, shoot whoever's there on sight in the head," the caller warned. "I don't care if they're (expletive) 2 years old or 100."

Jaber, a volunteer and Sunday school teacher at the Islamic Society of St. Petersburg, called the police after morning prayer. He feared for his two young daughters.

"They're helpless, and to him, obviously they're an enemy," Jaber said. "If you don't have any kind of compassion for human life, I really don't understand it."

FBI spokesman David Couvertier said the FBI is investigating the threat, in which the caller referenced Friday's terror spree in Paris, a series of synchronized attacks that killed at least 129 people.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest in Western Europe since 2004.

"This act in France is the last straw," the caller said in the voicemail, left about 7 p.m. Friday. "You're going to (expletive) die."

Similar threats were made against another mosque, according to Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on Islamic-American Relations. The group called for hate crime charges to be leveled against the caller.

In the second voicemail, left for the Islamic Society of Pinellas County in Pinellas Park, the man declares:

"I'm a red-blooded American watching the news in France. ... Guard your children. I don't care if you're extremists or not. I'm tired of your (expletive). Get out of my (expletive) country. I'm going to bomb your (expletive) location."

Hearing the voicemail was sickening, said mosque imam Saad Slaoui.

"This man, whoever he is, doesn't understand that we are very saddened by what has happed in France, as well," Slaoui said. "Every life that is lost unjustly is a loss for all of us. ... The way to handle it is not anger and hastiness in threatening to take more lives."

Slaoui said he, too, has come to fear for the safety of his children. He has told them to be vigilant, to take caution in public.

"Of course, we fear for our communities," he said. "They all come to the mosque to be inspired and to learn and to pray. We would love to do that without having to have any fear."

St. Petersburg police stationed a patrol car on the St. Petersburg mosque property on 6th Street S on Saturday and have been conducting directed patrols in the area as a precaution, police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said.

Enemies abroad shouldn't divide communities here, Shibly said.

"Get to know your fellow American Muslims, and see us for what we are, first and foremost," he said. "We are all human beings."

Jaber said he wants the world to know Muslims are a peaceful people.

"Unfortunately, small factions who call themselves the same thing happen to be the ones who tarnish Muslim images," he said.

The St. Petersburg mosque, which draws between 150 and 200 worshippers for Friday prayer, canceled Sunday school. Jaber fears members will be too afraid to show up for prayer.

"This is a more than a threat," Jaber said. "This is a terrorist act. Terrorist acts are done to strike fear into the hearts of people."

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.

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