News: How Safe Are We?

Three explosive incidents in Greater Cincinnati still unsolved

Jul 31, 2007 at 2:06 pm

For all the talk about al-Qaeda regrouping, elevated threat levels and allegations by local law enforcement that seeks to tie almost every Arabic criminal suspect to terrorism, the fact of the matter is the only victims of terrorism in Greater Cincinnati since 9/11 so far have been Muslims.

It's been 19 months since someone planted two bombs next to adjoining entrances at a mosque in Clifton on a cold December night in 2005 and the devices exploded. Although the bombs caused some damage to the building, no one was inside at the time and there were no injuries.

The disturbing incident at the Islamic Association of Cincinnati rallied residents in the mostly liberal neighborhood and across the region. More than two dozen religious leaders from various faiths, along with prominent civic officials, gathered at the mosque the next day to denounce the violent act.

Despite pledges of support — as well a $15,000 award by the FBI for any information that leads to an arrest — the crime remains unsolved nearly two years later. Local Muslims hold little hope that the area's Joint Terrorism Task Force will ever make an arrest in the case.

"It's been quite a while," says Karen Dabdoub, director of the Ohio office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It's very disappointing that the crime hasn't been solved and there hasn't been any progress."

Asked whether the task force has indicated it's working on any leads, Dabdoub says, "It's hard to know.

They don't share information with us."

But the FBI, which heads the task force, insists the case is a priority.

"We are still investigating," says FBI Special Agent Michael Brooks. "It's an open investigation. There's been no charges filed as of yet, but we are actively investigating."

Other agencies involved in the task force are Cincinnati Police, the Cincinnati Fire Department's bomb squad and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Mohammed Shamma, a retired University of Cincinnati business professor who is chair of the Islamic Association of Cincinnati, was genuinely heartened by the community's response to the bombings. Shamma doesn't believe, however, that the investigation is given much attention by the FBI these days.

"It might be an open door in their files, but that's not the information we have received," he says. "As far as we know, there's nothing been found, and it's not something that is being pursued."

There appeared to be a break in the case last fall but that was quickly dashed, Dabdoub says. The FBI began investigating some telephone threats against local Muslims, and agents thought they had tracked down the person making the calls. But there were no recordings of the threats, and the FBI was unable to definitively connect the person whose number turned up with the crime and declined to prosecute him, Dabdoub says. The man remains on a watch list.

Other unsolved bombs
In addition to the mosque bombing, the past couple of years have seen other unusual events involving explosives and suspected explosive devices occur in Cincinnati.

A U-Haul trailer truck was found abandoned last October in a wooded area next to the U.S. Coast Guard station on River Road west of downtown and next to the Ohio River. The vehicle, which was described as "fairly new," had expired license plates and its doors were unlocked. Inside, the Cincinnati Fire Department's bomb squad discovered several boxes that contained about 100 explosive devices.

About six weeks later, in November, the Ohio Department of Transportation shut down a section of Interstate 71 near Norwood for a few hours during mid-day when road crews found a bomb-like device in a box next to the roadway, causing a major traffic jam. Several businesses near the highway exit where the bomb was found also were evacuated. Bomb-sniffing dogs and X-ray machines were brought to the site to examine the device, which police said had a detonation mechanism and a clock that were wired to a battery.

Police described the box as "an incendiary device," and bomb squad members eventually blew it up with their own explosives to disable it and clear the area.

Both incidents remain under investigation, officials say.

Although there is no evidence suggesting the two incidents were linked to terrorist plots or, alternatively, were the result of an individual's fetish for panic and destruction, the specter of terrorism has been freely applied by some area law enforcement officials to try to bolster their cases against Arabic people charged with other offenses — even when there is no factual basis to make the claims.

In 2003, 19 men of Middle Eastern descent were indicted for money laundering, receiving stolen property and other charges for selling stolen goods at convenience stores. At the time, Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. said the men might've been sending some of their criminal proceeds to the Middle East to support terrorism — a charge that defense attorneys attacked as racist.

The case was handled by Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Crush, who pointedly noted in his remarks, "This case is not about terrorism." Streicher now refuses to talk to reporters about the allegations or Crush's comments.

Streicher's anxiousness about terrorism didn't subside. A year later, during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, he issued a terrorism alert to thousands of businesses and schools without informing the mayor or the city manager, as is standard procedure. No explanation for the alert was ever provided.

A Hamilton County assistant prosecutor in June tried to link a man charged with violating his probation on domestic violence charges with terrorism. Betsy Sundermann, a prosecutor and former president of the Blue Chip Young Republicans, stated in open court that the prosecutor's office determined the suspect — an Egyptian native — had passports from three nations and "has connections to al-Qaeda."

Months before the courtroom remark, however, the FBI investigated the claims. Agents later wrote local officials, stating the man had no link to terrorist groups, but Sundermann still made the remark in an effort to have a judge set a higher bond in his case. The judge scoffed at the allegations, and no one from the prosecutor's office ever offered an apology to the man.

'They will answer'
The tendency for some law enforcement agencies and media outlets to paint all people of Arabic descent as terrorists angers Mohammad Abdul Waheed, a worshipper at the Clifton mosque. Waheed is skeptical about the bombing investigation, and alleges forensic evidence left at the scene was sufficient to solve the case.

"They know who did it," he says. "If they can tell which gun a bullet is fired from, they have the technology to trace a bomb. Wherever you buy bomb supplies, you can trace it back there."

Law enforcement officials respond that, contrary to the notions left by TV shows such as CSI and Forensic Files, there isn't always enough trace evidence left to be helpful.

Just as there are misconceptions about police work, Muslims say there are distorted notions about people of Arabic descent and their beliefs. Arab-American groups say between one-third to one-half of all Arab Americans are Christian. Statistics show there are between 6 million and 8 million people who describe themselves as Muslim in the United States, with about 9,000 in the Tristate region.

Waheed says the climate of paranoia and anger after the 9/11 terrorist attacks has created a troubling climate for all Muslims — fundamentalist and otherwise.

"America is at war with Muslims right now," he says. "Our prophet taught us to be peaceful to everyone, including our enemies. They just hurt themselves when they do this. Whoever it is, they will answer for it on the Day of Judgment." ©