By Victor Allen
An abandoned backpack left at the entrance of Tempe’s Performing Arts Center Friday morning was enough to get local police bristling, bringing out the bomb squad and it’s high-tech remote control robot.
The contents later proved to be harmless. According to Randy Fougner, spokesman for Tempe Police, the backpack was brought in and left at the center by a passer-by. Employees at the center later became suspicious, took it back outside and called police.
Their suspicions were not without some justification; across the street from the center at 132 E. Sixth St., is the Islamic Cultural Center. Friday is a day of prayer for Muslims and the mosque was full of congregation members. Since the terrorist attacks in Washington D.C. and New York the state and nation have been holding their breath in anticipation of a series of retaliatory attacks against the Islamic community as a whole.
Security at the mosque is tight, Ahmad Alahkuum, chairman of the board of the Islamic Cultural Center said, “We take every threat seriously and we have received a few.”
Alahkuum said, “We have been in touch with the local police and they have increased patrols around the mosque. An off-duty officer is on guard. We have also hired an independent security guard service.”
Alahkuum was not concerned about the backpack. He had already talked to the police and was confident that it was simply left by a forgetful student. Prayers for the day were not canceled nor was the mosque evacuated.
Attendance for prayers at the mosque, normally 500 to 800, was down to about 400 but not out of fear. Alahkuum explained that due to police activity, congregation members had to offer their prayers at other mosques. Tempe Police were in no way convinced the backpack was harmless.
Although access to the mosque was allowed, the area surrounding it was cordoned off. While Muslim prayers pealed over the neighborhood, the bomb squad set up shop.
Sgt. Kevin Boontjer, scene supervisor for the unit said, “An ‘Explosives Ordinance Demolition’ robot was used to locate the exact position of the backpack using a video camera that sends live feed to its two operators, Chuck Bridges and Det. Chuck Corning.” Bridges, a K-9 unit officer with special training in bomb disarmament from the FBI, then suited up in his Kevlar body-armor and prepared for the approach.
Bridges placed two explosive charges next to the backpack and remotely detonated them. No explosions occurred save those of the discharge rounds; the only damage done was to the backpack. It was not a bomb as was suspected but turned out to be notebook papers and a ladies purse.
Harvey Smith, professor of mathematics at ASU and an expert on terrorism, explained that although the backpack turned out to be harmless, Tempe police had done the right thing for more than one reason.
“The immediate thing of importance after a terrorist attack, is for the government to be perceived as operating competently,” Smith said. “Better that the police were called out unnecessarily, than to have a bomb explode.”