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Pittsburgh church bomb plot suspect to remain in custody, judge rules

Judge's gavel. (Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rau/U.S. Air Force)

Fatmeh Alowemer said her eldest son Mustafa was excited to come to the United States.

A family of Syrian refugees, Fatmeh, Mustafa, his siblings and other family members had spent four years in Jordan after fleeing war in Syria, where her eldest could not attend school. In 2016, they came to America.

Speaking through an Arabic interpreter, she said her son was delighted for the opportunity, particularly to continue his education. Settled in Pittsburgh, he finished four years of high school in just three by attending extra classes, and he graduated from Brashear in early June.

The portrait she painted was in stark contrast to the man that FBI Special Agent Gary Morgan and federal prosecutors called the mastermind behind a thwarted plot to blow up a small North Side church.

Alowemer, 21, was arrested by federal agents June 19, less than two weeks after his high school graduation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song said he’d spent the months prior communicating and plotting with FBI agents who were posing as Islamic State sympathizers.

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On Friday, federal public defender Andrew Lipson brought his client’s mother to stand. She said she would take an oath to become a third-party custodian if her son could just be released pending his federal trial.

She said she would swear to make sure he followed all terms of his release and report him to his probation officer if he did not, adding that she would sleep in his bed so as not to let him out of her sight. She presented a petition signed by 81 friends and neighbors supporting her son and his return to the neighborhood.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Eddy declared Alowemer a flight risk and danger to the community. She ordered him to be kept in custody pending trial.

Dressed in an orange jumpsuit emblazoned with “Mahoning County Jail,” Alowemer spoke through an interpreter who also translated the entirety of the court proceedings for him.

Alowemer’s alleged plot targeted Legacy International Worship Center, a small black Christian church in a residential area on Wilson Avenue in the Perry South section of Pittsburgh’s North Side, according to the charges filed against him.

Federal agents say that Alowemer targeted the church because he believed it was attended by polytheists and Nigerian Christians. Alowemer wanted to “take revenge for our [ISIS] brothers in Nigeria,” according to the affidavit.

Morgan said Alowemer had inquired of the undercover agents if they knew anyone who could help him get to Syria via Turkey, and Morgan said he also talked of crossing into Canada or Mexico first. He’d also asked if they could get him a firearm.

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Song said it demonstrated that Alowemer is a flight risk, and his animosity toward law enforcement, Christians, military members, Shia Muslims and Yazidis (a Kurdish minority) makes him a danger to the community.

Lipson pointed to the fact that Alowemer asked for assistance in everything: on how to get to the Middle East, on how to get a gun, on how to build an explosive.

He said Alowemer made no attempts to go to Canada or Mexico on his own, and he’d made no attempt to purchase a gun. While he did buy nail polish remover and other supplies that can be used to make explosives, Lipson said, he’d ended up apologizing to the undercover agents for buying the wrong items.

“My client is not a fundamentally violent person,” he said.

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© 2019 The Tribune-Review