Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 10:26 AM
TAMPA, Fla. — The Kosovo-born American citizen accused of plotting bomb attacks around Tampa was a loner who had grown increasingly radical in his Muslim faith and publicly railed against Jews and Christians in videos he posted on the Internet, according to relatives and friends.
Sami Osmakac’s life in the U.S. began about a dozen years ago, when he was 13 and his family immigrated to the U.S., according to a video he posted on YouTube. Those who know Osmakac said he mostly kept to himself as a high schooler who loved rap music and rapped about bombs and killing in a song he made with a friend. As he grew older, they said, he grew increasingly confrontational: One Tampa-area activist said Osmakac physically threatened him, and Osmakac was jailed on charges that he head-butted a Christian preacher as the two argued over religion outside a Lady Gaga concert.
Osmakac, 25, is now jailed on a federal charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and could face life in prison if convicted. U.S. authorities say he planned to use a car bomb, assault rifle and other explosives in an Islamist-inspired attack on various locations around Tampa, including a sheriff’s office.
His family in Florida has said the charges are untrue.
Family members told the AP that Osmakac was born in the village of Lubizde in Kosovo, a tiny hamlet of scattered houses near the Cursed Mountains, a row of snowcapped peaks that divide Kosovo from Albania. The area is home to many adherents to Sufism, a mystical Islamic order whose members often pray over the tombs of revered saints. The Osmakacs are followers of a Sufi sect that has its own shrine just outside the village. Kosovo’s tiny Roman Catholic minority also resides in the area, as the village next to Lubizde, Dedaj, is comprised entirely of Roman Catholic ethnic Albanians.
Osmakac spent his early years in a home shared among his father and two uncles, but difficult living conditions and simmering ethnic intolerance sent the family searching for prosperity elsewhere. Osmakac’s family, like many who fled, brought their traditional trade of baking to what are now Croatia and Bosnia, where they have remained since Yugoslavia’s break-up after a series of ethnic wars in the 1990s. Osmakac’s family was in Bosnia during the bloodiest of all those wars, which left more than 100,000 dead, and eventually fled to Germany and then the U.S.
As a child, Osmakac was “a quiet and fun boy,” said his aunt Time Osmankaj. She said his family regularly sent money home to relatives trying to eke out a living as the wars left those who remained extremely poor.
Osmankaj said the family returned to Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, for visits during the summer months. But in recent years they noticed a change in Sami, who now grew a beard, donned religious garments, and was frequently accompanied by two devout Muslims from Albania and two from Bosnia. He also began to shun his relatives during his trips to Kosovo.
His aunt said she learned of his last visit in October 2011 through neighbors and that she did not meet with him. Authorities in Kosovo have said he used those visits to meet with Islamic radicals there.
Islam came to Kosovo with the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in the 15th century, but it had not grown political until more recently. For instance, hundreds of Muslims have taken to the streets to protest a ban imposed by Kosovo authorities on wearing headscarves in schools. Protesters also have demanded that new mosques be built to accommodate a growing number of faithful after a Roman Catholic cathedral was built last year in the center of the capital, Pristina.
The increase in religious tensions has raised concerns that U.S. soldiers serving as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping force could be targeted in attacks.
Avni Osmakac told WTVT-TV in Tampa that his brother had tried to travel to Saudi Arabia last year so he could study Islam, but that he had problems with his visa and never got farther than Turkey. Sami Osmakac wanted to become an imam and teach Islam in the Middle East, his brother said.
Osmakac’s family had settled in Pinellas Park, Fla., where his father opened a bakery and bought a home. There, Osmakac attended at least two high schools and was mostly a loner, classmate Alan Stokling wrote in an email to the AP.
“We were just the ‘ghosts’ at Lakewood High School,” he wrote. “He was one of those government rebel types. ... All of our conversations consisted of him talking about how stupid everybody at the school was. Not just the students, but the teachers, the people who financed institutions like it.”
Stokling said the two did have something in common: a love of rap music. Stokling said Osmakac had a friend with a studio setup in his room and asked Stokling if he wanted to make a song together. Osmakac recorded his part — he was alone while recording — and Stokling recorded his section.
The next day, Osmakac gave Stokling the CD. “Sami’s part came on and he was talking about murder and bombing and stuff,” Stokling recalled. “I wasn’t surprised by that. It wasn’t anything different from regular hip-hop songs.”
What was different was the song’s ending: Stokling said Osmakac rapped about killing Jews.
“The weirdest ad libs I’d ever heard,” Stokling said. “They were so beyond the realm of what was accepted back then as far as what was a consistency in the realm of a rap song that it was comical.”
The two discussed religion only once, when Osmakac asked about Stokling’s religion. When Stokling said he was a Christian, “he got kind of quiet then started laughing to himself under his breath in a smug fashion. In his own mind he seemed to be an elitist. That’s the vibe I got from him.”
Osmakac’s run-in with the preacher outside the Lady Gaga concert in April 2011 was far less subtle. According to police accounts of the fight, which the preacher recorded on video, Osmakac said, thumping his heart with his fist for emphasis: “My message is, if you all don’t accept Islam, you’re going to hell.”
At the mosque where Osmakac began worshipping in 2010, he mostly kept to himself. However, he occasionally had run-ins with other area Muslims. At the mosque, he and another man were cited for trespassing in November of that year after a heated discussion with Ahmed Batrawy, Vice President of the Islamic Society of Pinellas County.
In another instance, he accused the Council on American-Islamic Relations of being an “infidel organization,” said Hassan Shibly, executive director of the council’s Tampa office. And Ahmed Bedier, a Muslim community activist and radio host, said Osmakac had threatened him because Bedier’s organization encourages minorities to get involved in politics.
“He thought I was taking people out of the faith,” Bedier said. “On at least one time, he got very close as if he was going to hit me, and someone held him back.”
Bedier reported Osmakac’s behavior to authorities more than a year and a half ago. However, he said Osmakac’s hatred was so overt that many people suspected he may have been a government informant.
Bedier asked: “What terrorist goes on YouTube?”
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