Fire attacks at NYC homes, Islamic center probed

NEW YORK (AP) ? A police security tower rose into the sky Monday, keeping watch over a globally prominent Islamic cultural center that was firebombed amid a handful of attacks being investigated as possibly linked bias crimes.

Police, who had made no arrests, released a sketch of a suspect and a videotape from a surveillance camera at a private house that was one of the targets.

The video shows a car pulling up Sunday night. Someone suddenly appears, lifts his right arm high and hurls a lit object that strikes the house and explodes into flames.

Earlier Sunday evening, the entrance to the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation also was struck by two Molotov cocktails, the types of bombs usually made of glass bottles filled with flammable liquid and corked with rags.

“But we are not afraid,” said the center’s assistant imam, Maan Al-Sahlani.

With New York Police Department cruisers parked outside and yellow police tape fluttering, Al-Sahlani met on Monday afternoon with a dozen other clerics from the city’s Muslim community. A news conference was planned for Tuesday, the imam said.

Near a blackened, charred spot on the concrete overhang of the center’s main entrance, the front gates remained wide open to the street on Monday, and anyone could walk in to worship.

“This is America, and we must continue to love one another,” Al-Sahlani, standing in flowing ritual robes in the main prayer hall, said with a smile.

On Sunday, about 80 faithful had gathered inside for dinner when a firebomb struck at 8:44 p.m. A second one followed, striking a banner for the center’s school over the door. There was no visible damage there.

The other two targets in the suspected arson attacks Sunday night were a corner store and another house. No one was injured in any of the attacks.

Structural damage to the Queens Islamic center building was minimal, but the community was emotionally shaken, the Muslim cleric said.

“We were very surprised,” Al-Sahlani said. “This has never happened here before.”

His decades-old foundation is among the foremost Muslim institutions in New York, with branches around the world. Named for one of the most influential Shiite scholars, it promotes work in development, human rights and minority rights as a general consultant to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

The sprawling complex has two minarets rising over an expressway that leads to the John F. Kennedy International Airport. Visitors over the years have included Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and various New York mayors and international diplomats, Al-Sahlani said.

Besides a prayer hall, library, kitchen and other facilities, the center has a full, accredited school that resumes Tuesday after holiday break. Some parents were concerned about the attack, the imam said.

The Iraqi-born cleric said authorities have questioned him about contacts he has had recently by phone or in person. He said the center was working with police and the FBI.

In releasing the security videotape of the bombed home, police said they were looking for a black man, 25 to 30 years old, about 5-foot-8 and weighing about 200 pounds. They said he fled the scene in a light-colored, four-door sedan with a sunroof. They were offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

The Islamic center is moving forward, making no change in its plans after the attack.

Other targeted locations were more substantially damaged. Police said at least three firebombs were thrown, though some didn’t explode.

The first hit was at 8 p.m., when a bottle was thrown at a counter at a corner convenience store.

Ten minutes later, a possible firebomb smashed through the glass at a nearby home, setting it on fire and badly damaging it.

About half an hour later, the Islamic center was targeted.

And at 10:14 p.m., two bottles were thrown at a house police said was used for Hindu worship services, causing minimal fire damage.

Police also were looking at surveillance video obtained from the store.

Political leaders spoke out against the attacks. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said NYPD hate crimes unit detectives were working with precinct detectives and looking into whether there were any connections to incidents outside the city.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the violence.

“The four reported attacks on Sunday night go against everything we stand for as New Yorkers and Americans,” Cuomo said in a statement. “Attacks such as this have no place in our open and inclusive society.”

CAIR called on police and Muslim institutions to step up security measures around mosques. It recently called on the FBI to investigate threats targeting mosques posted on an anti-Islam blog, spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.

One comment on the blog read, “Throw 10 Molotov cocktails into these mosques and burn them down,” according to Hooper.

By Monday, the comment appeared to have been removed.

The council noted that in the past year, numerous mosques or mosque construction sites around the country have been targeted by arson, vandalism or threats.