Florida authorities believe that the fire at the mosque where the Orlando club gunman had attended was set intentionally as part of a deliberate arson attack. Authorities say that unreleased surveillance footage from the scene shows a man walking up to the Fort Pierce Islamic Center at around midnight on Sunday, followed by a bright flash. The individual then fled the scene.
"Evidence has revealed that this fire was set intentionally," Major David Thompson of the St Lucie Sheriff's Office told reporters at a press conference. The Federal Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms and the FBI will assist local authorities with their investigation of the fire. About 100 congregants attend the mosque, including the father of Orlando gunman Omar Mateen.
The attack took place on a particularly bittersweet day for many American Muslims. This year, the Islamic holiday of Eid coincided with 9/11 – a fact that wasn't lost on authorities investigating the incident who were trying to determine a motive.
"We all know the implications of the date and time of year this is," Thompson said. "Is that related? I wouldn't want to speculate but that's in the back of all our minds."
Eid is "a holiday for us, like Christmas Day," Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, the communications director for the Florida chapter of the Council of American Muslim Relations (CAIR) told VICE News. "Can you imagine how this is being felt by the community in general. It's a celebration and an exchange of gifts."
The suspected attack comes as part of a wave of assaults on Muslims and mosques. The Fort Pierce Islamic Center has been targeted multiple times since Mateen opened fire on the Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando, killing 49. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
A few weeks after the shooting, a man was brutally beaten as he left the Fort Pierce mosque. The suspect in the beating, Taylor Anthony Mazzanti, was arrested and charged with felony battery. Before the incident, CAIR released a statement contending that local law enforcement weren't doing enough to protect the Muslim community from attacks. Since then, Ruiz said authorities have worked "promptly and diligently" to investigate reported hate crimes, which he says have been on the rise.
CAIR said Florida's mosques and Islamic centers are receiving threatening letters and voicemails pretty much "every week." In the first six months of 2016, the organization noted 16 reported hate incidents, including two suspected arson attacks on mosques, vandalism of Muslim businesses and protests against Muslims and physical assaults.
That's already three times the number of reports in all of 2014, before the Pulse nightclub tragedy and the shootings in San Bernadino.
"This is a crescendo" Ruiz said. "We are very worried."