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I Islamophobia

Two Tampa area mosque fires ruled arson

By Dan Sullivan, For Tampa Bay Times, On 23 August 2016, Read Original
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Tampa Fire Rescue crews fight the Aug. 5 fire at the Masjid Omar mosque, now ruled an arson. Tampa Fire Rescue

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This was the damage left at the Islamic Education Center after a July 17 fire. Here, board member Jabbar Al-Mashahdani examines the damage in the men's prayer room on July 21. That fire was ruled an accident, caused by electricity, but a mosque official said power was cut off when fire struck again on Wednesday, July 27. Federal authorities now call the second fire arson. [Andres Leiva | TIMES]

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In July, Hillsborough County firefighters were called to the Islamic Education Center in Town 'N County to fight a blaze twice in 10 days. Authorities called the second one arson. [DAN SULLIVAN | Times]

TAMPA — At least two of five fires that have erupted in recent weeks at Tampa area mosques were intentionally set, and probably not by the same person, a federal official said Monday.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives confirmed arson was the cause of a July 27 fire at the Islamic Education Center in the Town 'N Country area. The news came days after Tampa Fire Rescue declared that debris from an Aug. 5 blaze at the Masjid Omar mosque on Busch Boulevard showed traces of gasoline.

"It doesn't appear that either one of the fires might be related," said ATF spokesman Kevin Richardson.

Still, federal officials were working with Tampa and Hills­borough County fire investigators to determine if any link exists between any of the five separate fires that have occurred at Hillsborough County mosques since last month.

"We're looking at everything collectively," said David Tucker, the lead fire investigator for the Hillsborough County Fire Marshal. He declined to say whether investigators believe any of the other fires may be related, but noted the collaborative investigative effort between local and federal agencies.

"It should be obvious with the tack we're taking," he said. "That in itself kind of speaks to the direction of the investigation."

The string of mosque fires began July 17 when a blaze damaged the Madinatul Ilm, which sits on a quiet residential road off Interstate 4. Investigators determined the cause was electrical.

The next day, a blaze erupted at the Islamic Education Center, leaving heavy damage to the small building that sits on a 4-acre lot off Rockpointe Drive in Town 'N Country. That fire, also, was believed to be accidental. But questions arose when, 10 days later, flames and smoke again filled the center.

The ATF, which investigates whenever fire occurs in a house of worship, found evidence of more than one attempt to get the fire started, Richardson said.

In that case, investigators found no traces of flammable liquids. But they appear to have found a possible suspect, as yet unnamed.

"They're looking at a person that they think might have set it," Richardson said.

On the night of Aug. 4, police and a fire investigator were called to the Masjid Omar mosque on Busch Boulevard after smoke was reported. Mosque leaders told investigators they thought someone poured gasoline on an air conditioning unit.

Panels had been taken off the air conditioner, said Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny. But there was little else to suggest tampering.

The next day, another fire broke out inside the same mosque, causing more than $25,000 in damage. Fire investigators at first suspected the blaze was sparked by an extension cord connecting a refrigerator to an electrical outlet near the main worship area. But the results of lab tests of debris taken from the scene showed traces of a gasoline, Penny said.

Wilfredo Ruiz, communications director for the Council on American Islamic Relations of Florida, said the organization is aware of the fires. Since last year, CAIR has offered safety and security training for all of Florida's 120 mosques.

"We would love to rule out that this is pattern," Ruiz said. "It is a big concern for our community."

Officials have not called either of the confirmed arsons a hate crime. Investigations of both are ongoing.

"Arson fires are inherently difficult to solve," Penny said. "That's why we're asking for the public's help. We're confident there's someone out there who knows about what happened."

Anyone with information about any of the mosque fires is asked to call Crime Stoppers toll-free at 1-800-873-8477.