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 Fred Blakeslee, an electrical contractor who lives in the Islamic Center’s neighborhood and once sold his old home to the mosque’s imam, a practicing physician. “There's something going on.”

Blakeslee said he’s never had reason to take issue with the mosque, but hopes law enforcement is investigating whether it has any connections to terrorism.

“I was always concerned about it,” he said. “But maybe that's just me as a white man saying that.”

Still others find it hard to think anything untoward was going on at the mosque.

“I think everyone should have the right to practice their religion,” said Greg Childress, who runs a jewelry and coin shop a short walk from the mosque. “I want to believe it's a couple bad apples. I don't want to believe it's a brewing pot.”

The day after the massacre in Orlando, a small crowd of people gathered outside the Mateen family home in nearby Port St. Lucie. “Ban Muslims,” screamed one young man. “Kill them all.” A Google search for the mosque’s website says it may have been hacked.

But although a West Palm Beach TV station reported that a man entered the mosque shouting obscenities the other day, local police said they had gotten no such reports or been told of any threats against it.

After days of taking questions from an unending stream of reporters, Islamic Center members were no longer answering the mosque’s door. But on Sunday, its spiritual leader, or imam, Syed Shafeeq Rahman, emphatically said in an interview that no one at the Islamic Center preached against non-Muslims or homosexuals.

“We don’t promote violence,” he said, before referring to the extremist group known as the Islamic State. “The mosques in America, they are very much conscious about the fact that they don't promote anything [radical] because nobody wants to promote trouble and nobody agrees with the ideas of ISIS.

“Our people are very educated here. Lawyers, doctors... why would they do this kind of thing that would be dangerous to their children? We want to be at peace so we can flourish.”

Of Mateen, he said: “He did harm to Islam.”

The mosque, which Rahman said has about 130 members, has been open since the 1990s without any trouble or controversy. Rahman said he was expecting none even now.

“Our neighbors are very nice,” said Rahman, who owns several homes around the corner on Elm Avenue. “Most of them we know by name. Nothing has happened in the past, thank God. We expect it will be quiet and the people will understand.”

The mosque sits just outside the city line in a working-class neighborhood of older homes with overgrown yards, beware-of-dog signs, and cars on cinderblocks in driveways. A Confederate flag hangs from the screened patio of one nearby house.

The main road, West Midway, has several Baptist churches, including one that advertises itself as a “biker chapel.” The mosque and its Christian neighbors had apparently have little to do with one another.

Aaron Lewis, pastor of the First Baptist Church of White City down the street, said he had no interest in interfaith work with the mosque and its congregants but was not bothered by them, either.

“As far as I know they're good neighbors, but they worship a different God,” Lewis said.

Given the small size of the local Muslim community, it would not be surprising that Mateen and Abusalha crossed paths. Fort Pierce, population about 44,000, is the seat of St. Lucie County, which numbers some 286,000 people. The Association of Religious Data Archives estimates the county is home to just 1,747 Muslims, and there aren’t many choices if they want to worship or congregate with others of the faith. Besides the Fort Pierce Islamic Center, there is a smaller mosque in Stuart, in Martin County to the south, and another in Vero Beach, which is in Indian River County.

Local newspaper reports suggest many Muslims came to the area to work as doctors. The community has grown in the past few years as they brought family members to join them, but remains low key and its members blend in with the broader population.

Few at the Fort Pierce mosque, most of whose members are over 40 and attend services with younger children, seemed to know Mateen, who was 29, very well, said Wilfredo Ruiz, communications director for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“That’s probably why the criminal didn’t engage with the community as much,” Ruiz said.

The Muslim community also has been overshadowed by hard times and recent changes in Fort Pierce. A bit of rural Old Florida that was incorporated in 1901 and saw its heyday in the 1920s as a station stop in Henry Flagler’s railroad, Fort Pierce had gone into decline after the development starting in the 1950s of its now much larger neighbor, Port St. Lucie, a sprawl of cookie-cutter homes and strip malls that occupies what were once cattle ranches and farmland.

The area long thrived on citrus farming and fishing, but the citrus was nearly wiped out by the canker scare of the 1990s. In 2004, Hurricanes Jean and Frances tore through, damaging homes and destroying Fort Pierce’s downtown marina, which took 11 years and more than $30 million to rebuild. Then, as in much of Florida, the housing crash of 2008 wiped out the equity of many homeowners and brought development in Port St. Lucie to a halt.

Fort Pierce has long been racially diverse, if divided along old segregation lines: Census estimates from 2014 put the population at 57 percent white. but 38 percent of residents are black, most living in the western mainland end of town, and 21 percent Hispanic, mostly of Mexican origin. Hispanic and Haitian immigrants were drawn by agricultural work.

The poverty rate is high, at 36 percent, and median household income is under $26,000. That’s reflected in the gritty, potholed streets in the mostly black neighborhoods and the low-income tracts that extend west on the mainland, including the area where Mateen, his wife and young son shared a condo. The area is dotted by pawn shops, bail bondsmen and gun stores. One grocery store sells rifles and knives as well as barbecue.

The well-off live outside of town, in suburban gated communities on golf courses.

But Fort Pierce leaders have made a concerted effort to broaden the local economy into tech and light industrial and scientific research. The Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies opened, Florida Atlantic University took over Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, and the former Indian River community college expanded to offer four-year programs. The city also refurbished its Mediterranean-style downtown, including the historic Sunrise Theatre, and added new residences and public amenities.

That has brought an influx of new residents, many of whom come fleeing the high cost of living in South Florida, improving prospects for the town, said Fort Pierce Mayor Linda Hudson. That makes it especially dismaying that Mateen’s killing spree has focused the wrong kind of spotlight on Fort Pierce, she said. The town, she said, bears no blame for it.

“We are not a cradle of terror and hate,” Hudson said. “We do not hate Muslims. We do not hate gays.”

In fact, some Fort Pierce residents went out of their way to say their town is a low-key, tolerant place with real history.

Attractions include a Navy Seals museum — the special forces team started in Fort Pierce — and a heritage trail and annual festival celebrating Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, who lived in Fort Pierce towards the end of her life and is buried here. There’s a museum dedicated to painter A.E. “Beanie” Backus and the Highwaymen, a group of Backus-inspired African American landscape artists from the area who gained fame selling their paintings door-to-door throughout Florida from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Not, it would seem, the kind of place to breed a terrorist, said James Isaac, a filmmaker who grew up in Fort Pierce, lives in Atlanta but returns frequently to his hometown.

“I want to know what the hell’s in the water here,” cracked Isaac, who plans to make a documentary about the Highwaymen, referring to the unlikely confluence of Mateen and Abusalha. “I’m drinking bottled water now.”

Rodney Schubel, general manager of Archie’s Seabreeze, a beachside biker bar, mused uncomfortably about sharing a hometown with a terrorist killer as he sat beneath a 12-foot papier mache shark lodged in the branches of the place’s patio shade tree.

“This guy could’ve been a customer,” he said. “It makes you queasy.”

But, he added: “The Muslim community, they are welcome here at this restaurant. They are a peaceful people.”

Then he paused. “It’s just the ones who’ve been radicalized.”

Miami Herald writers Kyra Gurney and Eliza Dewey contributed to this report.