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World & Nation

A small Florida town is left to wonder: How did 2 terrorists come from here?

The Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, Fla.
The Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, Fla.
(Ben Fox / Associated Press)

The day after Omar Mateen shot  about 100 people in an Orlando nightclub, killing 49 in the worst mass shooting in modern American history, many in this quiet Florida seaside town were upset when the local newspaper splashed “ONE OF US” across its front page.

Just two nights before the massacre, Mateen brought his son to Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, a tiny mosque on the southern outskirts of this sprawling town.  Yet many inside this Islamic center — and across the town — balk at the idea that Mateen somehow represented them.

“He was not the product of this town,” Linda Hudson, the  73-year-old mayor, said as she sat outside a gelato shop in the  quaint, historic downtown area, gazing at a marina full of sailboats and a man sprawled out in a deckchair, fishing. “This is a sleepy little town…. It’s small-town America.”

Mateen is not the first American terrorist with links to Fort Pierce, a  town of 43,000 about 65 miles north of West Palm Beach. Another, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, worshiped here sporadically before he flew to Syria in 2014 to carry out a suicide bombing.

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Inside the mosque, a converted Christian church with a pitched roof and a steeple, all were quick to express horror and shock at the mass shooting. Many insist that the presence of two killers in their midst was a coincidence. What happened in Orlando, they say, was not part of a pattern.

“There is no connection,” said Adel Nefzi, a chemistry professor who is a board member of the Islamic Center, sitting in the center’s prayer room as men knelt behind him on the pastel green carpet. The Syrian bomber, he said, had little connection with the mosque, and he never saw the two men communicate.   

“People think it’s related to the mosque, but we didn’t know him,” said Habiba Haque, 37, a Bangladeshi homemaker, as she sat cradling her brother-in-law’s son in the Islamic Center’s smaller room for women. “We raise our children to do good for our society. We don’t want these things. After every night prayer, our imam says good things.”

Since the attack, Haque said she’s been fearful for the safety of her 11-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. After the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, she said they were bullied at school and came home in tears. “After the Paris attack, their classmates said: ‘You did all these things. You are terrorists.’”

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She added, “Still, we are taking the blame for all of this.”

Mustafa Abasin, Mateen’s brother-in-law, said demonstrators showed up outside his home in nearby Port St. Lucie on Sunday as investigators searched inside. “We want to be living in peace,” he said from the doorway of his pastel pink, three-bedroom home. “We have small kids and are living in this neighborhood.”

In the wake of the shooting, an undercurrent of anxiety tugs  at Fort Pierce, an ethnically diverse town where the lagging economy is slowly shifting from citrus and cattle to tourism. Named after an Army installation built in 1838, it is one of the oldest towns on Florida’s east coast.

At a gas station a block from the mosque, the Indian owners said they were on good terms with their neighbors at the mosque.

“It’s a lone wolf,” insisted Vipul Shukla, the owner.

Not everyone was convinced.

“I hate to say it, but it sounds like Trump’s right,” said Cameron Kuchar, 18, a customer who lives a couple of blocks away, as he waited in line at the station.

“I knew it was coming,” Anita Easterday, a local bartender, said as she stopped at the station to pick up a pack of Camels and fill up her silver Chevrolet sedan. “Islam teaches hate and these people want to destroy America. It’s coming, and they’ve already infiltrated.”

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At the Midway Launderette a few blocks away, Cindy Bell, a manager, shook her head as she folded a quilt.

“It’s not safe to go nowhere no more,” she said. “I don’t think they should be allowed into this country.”

Her co-worker Isabel Ramirez, 55, a Mexican who moved to Florida 30 years ago, looked tense as she ironed a red shirt.

“They come to stay for a little while, but they don’t come here to work and they do something bad,” she said.

Already, Phil Halleck, 56, a salesman at a local autoshop, was tired of hearing all the talk.

“Oh, you know, a lot of stuff about bomb them all and turn the Middle East into a glass factory,” he said. “I haven’t heard a whole lot of informed discussion. That’s what happens when people spend too much time on the Internet and are not studying the tenets of religion.”

Monika Reddick, 18, a nursing student, pushed grocery carts across the hot asphalt parking lot of the Winn-Dixie Marketplace. “It’s shocking that he lived so close to here, but you really can’t say just because he lived here, it’s the community’s fault.”

Within the Muslim community, opinion seemed divided on whether there is a broader pattern of extremism, as well as what, if anything, the Muslim community could do to counteract it. One member of the mosque, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was trying to get the community to engage in more discussion.

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“It’s the second time in two years,” he said. “Why do we let this happen a second time? We should have been more proactive the first time.”

Maged Metwally, 72, an Egyptian, said he was tired of discussing the issue.  “I don’t believe we need to talk about it,” he said. “The situation has been resolved. Life goes on. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Hudson, who grew up here and has been mayor since 2012, admits there is fear. Yet she is confident the town will move on.

“Many of us are wondering ‘Do we have something to worry about?’” she said. “But I don’t think the town will be dwelling on this for long. We don’t want it to define us.”

Jarvie is a special correspondent


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