AUSTIN (KXAN) — A man was caught on camera trying to set a Muslim community center in north Austin on fire Tuesday, and investigators need the public’s help to find him.
Austin fire investigators say the suspect arrived at the North Austin Muslim Community Center at 11900 N. Lamar Blvd. at about 12:38 a.m. Tuesday.
In surveillance footage released by investigators, the suspect can be seen pouring a liquid along the fence. He then lit a wadded up paper on fire and tried to ignite the fence. From the video footage, investigators gathered he was on the premises for about 20 minutes.
“There’s a very good possibility he could’ve done a lot of damage and burned the building down,” said Captain Andy Reardon of the Austin Fire Department.
The suspect is described as a white or Hispanic man, about six feet tall and weighing about 160 lbs.
“He was wearing a Nike sweatshirt with a black hoodie under used to conceal his face, blue jeans and black Nike tennis shoes,” officials wrote. The suspect vehicle is described as a white or light-colored Ford F-150 or a similar truck.
The Islamic center’s Imam, Islam Mossaad said a number of security cameras were added after it was vandalized in the fall. They’ve also added a metal fence along most of the property and have hired private security, too.
“Whether it’s Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, it doesn’t matter,” Mossaad said. “All of those places of worship are sacred and are to be untouched and unmlolested.”
Mossaad says his congregation won’t let the attempted arson affect any services or prayers.
“These incidents will not put a cloud over the month of Ramadan,” Mossaad said. “Rather, it will just make us stronger. We will be more aware, more vigilant, more careful.”
If you have information about the suspect or crime, you’re asked to contact the Austin Fire Department at (512) 472-8477.
Last year, the same community center reported multiple incidents of vandalism, including slashed car tires and broken windows.
The attempted arson comes in the wake of global attacks on religious institutions. In March, a gunman killed 49 people at a mosque in New Zealand. Then, on Easter Sunday, a series of bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka left hundreds dead. The group that claimed responsibility for the attacks said it was retaliation for the mosque attack in New Zealand a month before.
Austin fire officials are still investigating and the motive for the attempted arson is unknown.
Security measures reviewed at area mosques
In about a week and a half, the Holy Month of Ramadan will begin. Several mosques in Austin told KXAN they were already in the process of reviewing safety and security measures of their Ramadan events, and now, they’re increasing their efforts.
“If it can happen to places like that, it can happen to places like ours or other places all around Austin,” said Shakeel Rashed, Executive Committee Member at Islamic Center of Lake Travis. “The reality is we lost this whole building two years back.”
In 2017, Islamic Center of Lake Travis burned to the ground. Rashed said fire investigators were not able to determine the cause.
“We moved on almost immediately, how we can rebuild,” said Imam Mohamed-Umer Esmail.
During that process, they made sure to add cameras, make the building well lit and secure the property with a gate.
Rashed added that they’ve also consulted with security companies to make sure they were doing their best to help families feel safe at the house of worship.
Rashed explained: “We believe we have to be prepared for anything. That’s the whole point. We want not to be doing all of this, but this is the reality of everybody right now.”
Rashed and Imam Esmail also have plans to meet with Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez. They said they have a good working relationship with law enforcement.
Islamic Center of Greater Austin said they’ve also reviewed their security measures and will increase patrols on Friday evenings when hundreds of people attend prayers, as well as at night during Ramadan for nighttime prayers. During the month of Ramadan, people of all ages attend prayers.
The Imam of the North Austin Muslim Community Center said, “We are concerned, but at the same time we are undeterred in coming to worship.”
Imam Esmail said, “We always like to focus on the positive that the majority of the people are very loving and caring people.”