Thursday, June 16, 2016

Coincidence? Orlando killer, Syria bomber shared mosque, hometown


A day after the names of the dead in the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub were confirmed, a trucker in a gray ball cap drove past the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce. He blasted the horn and wagged his middle finger out the window in the direction of the mosque, which occupies a former Christian church building that’s had the cross taken off its steeple.

Until now, the small mosque had drawn little attention in this sleepy Florida Treasure Coast town, a mostly working-class place that despite a nice slice of beach and an award-winning restored historic downtown goes largely overlooked by the tourists and retirees who flock Vero Beach and Stuart, its better known neighbors to the north and south.

But this was the mosque where Omar Mateen, the U.S.-born Muslim who shot 100 people and killed 49 of them in a gay nightclub, sometimes worshiped. He was there with his young son on Friday, the day before the massacre, for evening prayers.

In what may be an odd coincidence, the Islamic Center was also attended on occasion by Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who is believed to be the first American suicide bomber in Syria. Abusalha, who joined Islamist militants fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, was in his early 20s when he died in 2014 after driving a truck loaded with explosives into a restaurant in Aleppo where Syrian government troops were stationed, had lived in Fort Pierce and with his parents in Vero Beach, a half hour’s drive north.

He and Mateen also attended, at different times, Indian River State College, a public regional institution with a solid academic reputation.

When the FBI looked into a possible relationship between the two in 2014, it found no more than a casual acquaintance that came from attending the Fort Pierce mosque, bureau director James Comey said on Monday. Abusalha also sometimes attended a smaller mosque in Vero.

But in Fort Pierce, some are shocked and can’t help but wonder: What are the chances that a small city in the quiet Treasure Coast, an area hardly known as a magnet for Muslim immigrants, much less as some hotbed of Islamic radicalism, would produce two mass killers motivated at least in part by their faith?

“You got two incidents coming out of there,” said...

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