By Kelsey Ryan and Roger McKinney
JOPLIN, Mo. —
About a month after the roof of the Islamic Society of Joplin’s mosque was damaged in a suspected arson, the entire building burned down in a suspicious fire early Monday, leaving little but charred remains.
The wreckage of the structure was still smoldering at 8 a.m. as Carl Junction fire crews started to leave the scene. They received a call from a newspaper carrier around 3:30 a.m.
The incident came a day after the deadly shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
The FBI has about 30 agents investigating the fire, said Michael Kaste, special agent in charge of the Kansas City FBI office. He said it would continue to be characterized as “suspicious” until a cause could be determined. He said the investigation was in its preliminary stage.
“If this fire is determined to be deliberate in nature, it will be investigated to the fullest extent possible,” Kaste said. “Any act of violence to a house of worship is taken very seriously by law enforcement, and threatens the very core of the safety and security that our communities enjoy.”
He said if it’s determined that the fire was deliberately set, the $15,000 reward offered for an arrest in the July 4 fire at the mosque would be extended to cover Monday’s fire.
An outdoor sign at the mosque was burned in 2008. That crime was unsolved.
‘A TEST FROM GOD’
“This should not stop us from serving God,” said Imam Lahmuddin, the mosque’s religious leader, at the scene. “We still have to fulfill our obligation. We will do our prayers in other places. If we don’t find a place, we will do our prayers in our home. We cannot miss any of the five prayers.”
Lahmuddin said the members of the mosque do not have plans yet for where they will pray, but it is still early.
“We just take this as a test from God. God is testing us,” he said. “This is the month of Ramadan. We are fasting. We are not supposed to get angry. We are not supposed to say anything bad. But that’s not only for this month, but for every day of our lives. In Ramadan, we are more careful in guarding our tongues, not to say anything inappropriate. We come here during the month of Ramadan more often. Last night (Sunday) we left at about 11:20 p.m. when we finished final prayers, and we were supposed to get in here about 5 a.m. for the morning prayer. But God has a plan.”
The mosque, located at 1302 S. Black Cat Road, serves about 50 families in the area.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Omar Ahmed, 15, who came to the scene around 5 a.m. “It’s a house of worship. It’s a place of God.”
Some people like to stay the night at the mosque during Ramadan, Ahmed said, but no one was in the building at the time of the fire.
“The whole thing was on fire,” Ahmed said. “As soon as we turned on 32nd Street and Black Cat Road, you could just see the pillars (of smoke).”
During the month of Ramadan, which ends on Aug. 18, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. At the end of the month, they will celebrate Eid-al-Fitr.
“It’s basically our Christmas,” Ahmed said.
On the morning of July 4, a man apparently attempted to set the mosque on fire by tossing a package with a lit fuse onto the roof. The man has not been identified, but his image was caught on surveillance cameras. There is a $15,000 reward for information leading to charges from the FBI.
Carl Junction fire Chief Bill Dunn said agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene, and he believed the FBI would investigate the fire.
“It was really burning when we got here,” Dunn said. “The fire got inside and broke through the roof.”
Dunn said an accelerant could have helped build the fire’s strength. He said the fire is suspicious and is under investigation, but authorities could not yet prove it was arson. A fire-damaged surveillance video box was retrieved, and it will be sent to the FBI, he said.
Kaste, the FBI agent in charge, wouldn’t say if any video footage was salvaged after Monday’s fire, as it was after the July 4 fire.
He also wouldn’t say how a dog on the site Monday afternoon would be used.
Jasper County Sheriff Archie Dunn said authorities had valid reasons for withholding some information.
He said patrols had been increased after the July 4 fire at the mosque, so that a patrol car passed by at least once every shift.
He said no useful leads had developed in the July 4 fire, even after the reward was offered and the video was released.
“We will not rest until this crime is solved and someone is arrested,” Dunn said.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., issued a statement by email.
“I’m incredibly saddened to hear about the fire that destroyed the Joplin mosque this morning,” he said. “If it turns out to be arson once again, this kind of action is absolutely unacceptable.”
Jeff Fulton, acting special agent in charge at the Kansas City office of the ATF, said in a news release that any house of worship is more than a building.
“The impact of this devastating fire is not just a loss of a building but a spiritual loss to the community,” he said.
AUTHORITIES SAID people with any information about Monday’s fire or the July 4 fire may call the Joplin FBI office at 417-206-5700; Jasper County sheriff’s Detective Tim Williams at 417-358-8177, ext. 1223; the ATF at 417-837-2100 or 888-ATF-FIRE; or the Missouri Division of Fire Safety Arson Hot Line at 800-392-7766.