Police have arrested a man identified from video footage as the likely arsonist who attempted to burn down a gay bar filled with patrons on New Year’s Eve in Seattle, and now the FBI has confirmed that it is investigating the case as a possible hate crime.
The arson attempt, in which gasoline was spilled down a stairway entrance and lit, occurred shortly after midnight on a night when the Capitol Hill bar, Neighbours, was packed with 750 people. Alert patrons averted a potential catastrophe by dousing the flames before they spread.
After video stills were released showing a bearded man police believed was carrying the gas can used in the attempt, neighbors of the man directed police to Musab Musmari, a 30-year-old Libyan immigrant who had been involved in a series of unusual encounters with people on Capitol Hill, where he rented an apartment. Police and FBI agents, working as part of a Joint Terrorism Task Force, interviewed Musmari last week but did not arrest him.
On Saturday, Musmari was arrested en route to SeaTac Airport with a boarding pass for a flight to Turkey. He is being held on suspicion of arson. On Tuesday, a King County judge set his bail at $1 million, citing the risk of flight, but prosecutors have not yet charged him. The FBI told Hatewatch on Wednesday that it continues to investigate the case as a possible hate crime.
Musmari’s neighbors told a Seattle Times reporter that he had become a problematic figure: accosting women in the neighborhood, hacking limbs off trees and painting the railings around his apartment building red. At the same time, they said he had never exhibited any signs of homophobia.
Neighbours is one of the more established gay bars on Capitol Hill. In 1990, it was the target of a group of neo-Nazis from Idaho, who had developed an elaborate plot to bomb the entrances to the bar after first bombing the dance floor, as a way to kill as many gay and lesbian patrons as possible. Three men were arrested and sent to federal prison for the plot.
Seattle police and firefighters said that everyone was fortunate in this case, thanks largely to the alert patrons who used extinguishers to douse the flame. If the flames had spread only a little longer, they believe, the hundreds of patrons in the bar may have had trouble escaping out the two remaining entrances.
“A minute more and you could’ve had disaster,” said patron Shaun Kinttel, who runs Social Outreach Seattle and is a regular at Neighbours. He recorded video of the discovery of the liter of gasoline at the top of the staircase.