Fort Pierce Residents Wonder How One Small Florida Town Could Produce 2 Violent Extremists

The Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, Fla., once a Christian church, is where Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, worshiped. (PHOTO CREDIT: Ben Fox/AP)
The Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, Fla., once a Christian church, is where Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, worshiped. (PHOTO CREDIT: Ben Fox/AP)

Two days before Omar Mateen shot a hundred people, killing 49, he knelt for over an hour on the green carpet of the Fort Pierce mosque, praying with his young son last Friday evening.

The first American to carry out a suicide bombing in Syria, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, also occasionally worshiped here before he left his car outside the mosque in 2014, flew to Syria, burned his U.S. passport and blew himself up in an operation for an al-Qaeda affiliate.

The FBI looked for a potential connection between Mateen and Abusalha in 2014 and did not find “ties of any consequence,” aside from the two men knowing each other “casually” from attending the same mosque, said the bureau’s director, James B. Comey, on Monday.

But in the wake of Sunday’s attack in Orlando, there is a new focus on this small working-class town in South Florida and the mosque atttended by two of the most infamous Muslim extremists with U.S. roots.

“We are a low-key small town and we are hearing that we have two radicalized Muslims,” said Dennis Gaskin, a retiree who worked at the Tropicana plant here that squeezes oranges into juice. “Hindus are more noticeable here. You almost never see a Muslim.” Perhaps, he said, this “small town has gotten too big too fast.”

People in Fort Pierce said the last time anyone paid this much attention to the mosque was in the 1990s, when it first opened, taking over a building that had been a Christian church and removing the cross on the roof.

Inside the mosque — which looks likes a church except for the missing cross — Adel Nefzi said he and many of those who worshiped last Friday with Mateen are trying to collect money and give blood to the victims of the Orlando massacre.

Nefzi, a chemistry professor and a member of the mosque’s board, said he never saw Mateen “interact” with Albusalha, the suicide bomber who went to Syria. He said he does not believe there is any link between the two.

“It’s our bad luck,” he said, that both violent men had connections to this little mosque, one of the oldest in this part of Florida. The Fort Pierce mosque has drawn people from other parts of central Florida, including Abusalha, who had lived farther north, in Vero Beach, before leaving for Syria.

“We are frustrated and horrified” by the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that had drawn worldwide attention and more local scrutiny, Nefzi said. He said Mateen “has not done this because he is a Muslim but because he has a psychological problem.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Mary Jordan