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Anchorage mosque fields calls about airport attack as investigation continues

Anchorage's only mosque found itself fielding calls in recent days from people wondering if Esteban Santiago — the 26-year-old accused of killing five people at a Fort Lauderdale airport baggage claim — had ties to the mosque, after unsubstantiated reports surfaced online linking him to radical Islam.

Youssef Barbour, a spokesman for Anchorage's Islamic Community Center of Alaska, said the answer is no. 

"We have no connection with this guy whatsoever," said Barbour, who works as a physician. "We are hearing the news for the first time just like everyone else."

He said he didn't recognize Santiago, nor did anyone Barbour had spoken with from the mosque.

Santiago's brother said in a video interview with The New York Times that the 26-year-old told him he'd been hearing voices and thought the government wanted him to  join "groups like ISIS." FBI officials said Santiago complained in November that his mind was being controlled by a "U.S. intelligence agency." Reports have also said that he believed he was being forced to watch ISIS training videos. FBI officials said they are investigating Santiago's contacts, digital media and trying to determine a motive.

Speculation on internet sites led more than a dozen people to contact the Anchorage mosque to ask about Santiago, Barbour said.

Most emailed, but some called the home and even work phone of one member.

"I take it as people with good intentions, they are just curious and want to know," Barbour said.

Members of the mosque had reached out to the FBI to make sure it was OK to make a statement that they had no connection to Santiago, and that they wouldn't damage the ongoing investigation, Barbour said. The FBI gave them the go-ahead.

"It is a very sad event," he said. "He is in custody now and hopefully there will be answers."

FBI agents looked on as a dumpster behind the Qupqugiaq Inn in Midtown Anchorage was seized on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, as “part of an ongoing investigation” into Esteban Santiago and his actions in Anchorage before the Fort Lauderdale airport shootings. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

FBI agents were actively seeking some of those answers Sunday afternoon in Anchorage, as they looked on while a full, blue dumpster was hauled away from behind the Qupqugiaq Inn in Midtown as evidence.

The dumpster and its contents are part of the ongoing investigation into Santiago and his actions before the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, said Staci Feger-Pellessier, an FBI spokeswoman in Alaska.

On Friday evening tenants were ordered out of their rooms while FBI agents searched the building. Law enforcement officials said at a Saturday press conference that Santiago had stayed at the inn, though it wasn't clear when or for how long. 

Feger-Pellessier said the agency has been executing search warrants at locations in Anchorage, including the house on Medfra Street where Santiago is believed to have lived with his girlfriend, and the Midtown hotel.

Feger-Pellessier said the contents of the dumpster would be taken to the FBI's building in downtown Anchorage for processing.

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