Minneapolis mosque fires heighten fears that incidents may have been motivated by hate

·5 min read
Minneapolis mosque fires heighten fears that incidents may have been motivated by hate

Concern is growing in Minneapolis after incidents at three mosques over 14 days in April, when Muslims observed Ramadan and celebrated Eid-al-Fitr.

Fires were set Sunday at the Masjid Omar Islamic Center and Monday at Masjid Al Rahma, Minneapolis police said. The mosques are about three minutes away from each other.

Jackie R. Little of Plymouth, Minnesota, was arrested by police on Saturday and charged with arson in connection to both incidents, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office District of Minnesota.

The blazes come on the heels of another incident at a third Minneapolis mosque. On April 10, several windows and the door of Ummatul Islam Mosque were destroyed in an act of vandalism, according to the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Minneapolis police Chief Brian O'Hara was meeting Monday with staff members from Masjid Omar Islamic Center after a bathroom there was set on fire when he was notified about the fire at Masjid Al Rahma.

"Earlier this week, an arsonist set fire to two occupied houses of worship in South Minneapolis," O'Hara said in a statement released on Saturday. "This heinous act was an attempt to inflict terror onto our Muslim community. Houses of worship should be safe places. Setting fire to a sacred facility, where families and children gather, is incredibly inhumane. And this level of blatant hatred will not be tolerated in our great city."

The department will evaluate any possibility that the incidents were motivated by hate or bias and look into potential prosecution for a federal offense because they happened in occupied places of worship, O’Hara added.

A possible suspect in two fires set at mosques in Minneapolis (Minneapolis Police Department via Facebook)
A possible suspect in two fires set at mosques in Minneapolis (Minneapolis Police Department via Facebook)

Officers who responded to Masjid Omar Islamic Center around 7:15 p.m. Sunday following reports of arson found evidence in a bathroom of a small fire that was extinguished before emergency personnel arrived. No one was injured.

According to a criminal complaint, Little allegedly entered a second-floor bathroom at the center and "lit a cardboard box on fire inside a stall." He was interrupted by an employee, who chased Little out of the building.

The burnt cardboard box and a partially melted gas can were left behind in the stall.

Worshippers in the mosque helped extinguish the flames, according to the council's Minnesota chapter.

“If not for the actions of the worshippers, this disturbing incident could have resulted in injuries or even deaths," CAIR-Minnesota executive director Jaylani Hussein said. "We thank fire and law enforcement officials for their response and hope that a motive for this arson attack at a house of worship may be determined. Given past incidents targeting state mosques and Islamic institutions, we urge law enforcement authorities to investigate a possible bias motive for this crime.”

On Monday around 6:52 p.m., Little was seen on surveillance footage entering Masjid Al Rahma. The mosque rents the lower level of the location to a private daycare business, according to court documents.

Little allegedly set a fire on the third floor of the center, significantly damaging the hallway and the stairwells on both ends.

A security guard at the mosque alerted three men who were present at the time of the fire, one of which ran upstairs to the third floor where he found smoke. The security guard called 911 and directed others to help evacuate the children attending daycare in the lower level.

A pile of debris was found on the third floor, as well as cardboard, seven metal olive oil canisters, ceiling tiles and a melted red plastic rectangular object resembling a plastic gas can that contained gasoline, court documents say.

No injuries were reported. The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also responded.

“I have ordered additional patrols and additional law enforcement resources, some of which will be visible and some of which are not,” O’Hara said. “We will work with our law enforcement and community partners to do everything possible to keep all people safe and free to exercise their Constitutional right to freedom of religion.”

In addition to the fires, Little was arrested in connection with acts of vandalism he's accused of committing late last year and earlier this year, including spray-painting the number “500” on the front door of a U.S. representative's office, a Somali Minneapolis police officer’s car and the entryway of a shopping center in Minneapolis locally known as “Somali Mall,” according to a criminal complaint. The meaning of “500” is unclear at this time.

Little also allegedly sent the U.S. representative an email with an attached image of "a Quran in a toilet being urinated on by a male." Officials would not identify who the U.S. representative in question was.

"Based on our investigation, there is no other known, active threat to our Muslim neighbors," O'Hara said on Saturday. "Let this be a lesson to anyone who seeks to cause harm through acts of hate. We will find you. We will remove you from our streets. And we will ensure you are held accountable."

Little "has a known history of arson or suspected arson, including incidents in May 2022 and December 2021," according to court documents. His mother, who was interviewed by law enforcement, said Little had a fascination with fire from a young age.

Little also has a history of domestic assault and "other violent crime as recently as March 2023."

Minneapolis this month became the first major U.S. city to allow the broadcast of the Islamic call to prayer five times a day year-round. Muslims pray every day at dawn, early afternoon, late afternoon and sunset and the final one at night.

The city's noise rules previously prevented calls to prayer from being broadcast at dawn and late at night.

Mosques are common in Minneapolis, where there's a large East African population that's been growing since the 1990s, The Associated Press reported. Three of 13 members of the Minneapolis City Council identify as Muslims.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com