Tampa Bay area Muslims, mosques wary after New Zealand terror attacks

While no local mosques have received threats, experts say Muslims houses of worship must still take precautions.
Published March 15
Updated March 15

TAMPA — It was shortly before Friday’s midday prayers at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay mosque when Nadia Ghabin recalled the chilling thought she woke up to that morning, after hearing that 49 were killed and scores more wounded in a terrorist attack on two New Zealand mosques.

“The way Muslims pray, your back is away from the entrance,” said community organizer Ghabin, 37. “So anyone could come in and potentially harm you and you would never see that. That is in the back of my mind today.”

That’s why the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office sent deputies to the mosque on E Sligh Ave. Usually there is at least one stationed there, but on this day there were four, said Ahmed Bedier, president of United Voices and a member of the congregation.

While Ghabin said she felt reassured by the presence of law enforcement, what about the future?

“What about six months from now?” she said. “What about the next year?”

An hour before worshippers would start filing into the mosque for Friday’s Jummah prayers, the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Florida held a news conference where officials laid out their concerns for a community grieving after the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The white supremacist who claimed responsibility for the massacre left a 74-page anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim manifesto. He said he was 28, a white Australian and a racist.

Council officials said they have seen an uptick in hate crimes aimed at Muslims in the Tampa Bay area and across the state.

“Just this morning, as we were preparing for this, we had a (caller) saying just horrible things,” said Thania Diaz Clevenger, the organization’s civil rights director.

She said the organization is already monitoring two recent incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes reported in the greater Tampa area which are being investigated by law enforcement. She did not offer any other details, but did say one involved a firearm and the other involved an intrusion into someone’s home.

CAIR officials reacted strongly to the manifesto’s praising of President Donald Trump.

It included a single reference to Trump in which the author asked and answered the question of whether he was a Trump supporter: “As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no.”

“It is unfortunate that hateful rhetoric has come from our elected President and his cabinet,” said Majda Rahmanovic, the organization’s community planning and development director. “We do not stand for that. We hope that is not something that will inspire other people because that's not what America is."

The council’s executive director, Hassan Shibly, said Muslim houses of worship across Florida were being urged to take additional security precautions in the wake of the New Zealand terror attacks.

“We have encouraged all mosques to ensure they have increased law enforcement patrols, especially at Friday sermon time,” Shibly said.

On the other side of the bay, St. Petersburg police will step up patrols at mosques in the coming days. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said it received no requests for extra security. “If they request any that’s what we’re here for,” sheriff’s Cpl. Jessica Mackesy said.

Tampa police said the agency has received no information suggesting a higher risk of threats, but officers were still taking precautions.

“We are doing a threat assessment, and have found no threats,” Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty said. “The (patrol) districts have been instructed to do spot checks at area mosques.”

Hegarty’s assessment matched that of Nezar Hamze, a Broward County Sheriffs Office deputy and director of the South Florida Muslim Foundation. For the past three years, Hamze has been giving security briefings to nearly 100 mosques across the state, including many in the Tampa Bay region.

He said the foundation has received no reports of attacks being planned. But after learning about the New Zealand attacks late Thursday night, Hamze sent out a statewide alert to the Muslim community, asking them to take several security precautions.

He urged people to remain calm and de-escalate tensions, ask for increased police presence at mosques during Friday prayer and requested that volunteers from the board of each mosque stand outside to greet worshipers — and report suspicious behavior to local authorities.

Hamze has traveled to mosques across the state and run active shooter training drills to teach congregations how to respond to attacks like the one in Christchurch. Every congregation should appoint a safety and security committee and practice drills several times a year, he said.

After the Jummah sermon at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay mosque wrapped up, Hillsborough sheriff’s Col. Kyle Robinson told worshippers that deputies were stepping up patrols at mosques and other locations. They won’t just be driving by, though. Deputies will also conducting foot patrols, he said.

“You are free to worship,” Robinson said. “Do not be afraid.”

Times staff writer Tony Marrero and information from the Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman