New Jersey man charged with federal hate crime in Rutgers Islamic center vandalism

SOMERVILLE, N.J. — A New Jersey man was charged with a federal hate crime for breaking into the Center for Islamic Life at Rutgers University during the Eid-al-Fitr holiday and causing about $40,000 in damages, the Department of Justice announced Monday.

Jacob Beacher, who is not affiliated with Rutgers, was arrested and charged on Monday with one count of intentional or attempted obstruction of religious practice and one count of making false statements to federal authorities, the Justice Department said.

The Rutgers University Police Department responded to the incident at about 4:30 a.m. on April 10. Officers found smashed windows and a television, broken printers, wrecked artwork and plaques with Quranic verses, and a Palestinian flag ripped off the pole in the front lobby, according to Chaplain Kaiser Aslam. The Justice Department alleged Beacher, 24, stole a Palestinian flag and charity box that belonged to the center.

The building was vandalized on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, or the "festival of breaking the fast," a three-day holiday that follows the fasting month of Ramadan.

"The community is shaken because it's our home on campus," Aslam said after the incident. "It's a safe space for many of our students."

The hate crime charge announced Monday is the latest development amid rising hostilities toward Muslims across the United States. Civil rights advocates have denounced a record-high spike in Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian incidents since Israel’s war in Gaza began six months ago.

Overall, hate crimes reported across 25 American cities increased last year by an average of 17% from 2022, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University.

FBI: Surveillance footage shows break-in

An affidavit filed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in federal court says that surveillance video showed Beacher walking toward the rear door of the Center for Islamic Life at about 2:41 a.m. on April 10. He then allegedly broke a glass pane on the door, pushed through a piece of Plexiglass and manually opened the door from inside by reaching through the broken glass to unlatch a deadbolt lock, the affidavit says.

At about 3:05 a.m., Beacher left the building through the rear door and less than one minute later, video surveillance showed him pacing the area by the Rutgers Student Center about 75 to 100 feet from the Center for Islamic Life, according to the affidavit. About five minutes later, he got on a bicycle and went toward Buccleuch Park.

Based on a review of all the video surveillance in the area, Beacher was the only person seen in the vicinity of the Center for Islamic Life between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m., the affidavit says.

On April 14, two people reported to authorities that they found a donation box belonging to the Center for Islamic Life on the east side of Buccleuch Park, the affidavit says, and a trace of Beacher's cell-site data found that his cellphone had been on the east side of Buccleuch Park shortly after the break-in. On April 12, the FBI questioned Beacher in North Plainfield, New Jersey.

Beacher admitted he was the person in the video surveillance of the area but denied breaking into the center, according to the affidavit.

Civil rights group calls for heightened protections

The New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged Rutgers administrators to act with urgency to protect Muslim, Palestinian, and allied students.

"Muslim, Palestinian, and allied students across college campuses are facing an upsurge in bigoted attacks, especially as they advocate for Palestinian liberation,” the organization said in a statement following the arrest. “The vandalization of the Center for Islamic Life at Rutgers University, which had a Palestinian flag displayed, is an example of such bigoted violence.”

Tensions over the war have become a flashpoint at Rutgers University, with frequent protests across campus, allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and a push for the university to divest from military and security companies doing business with Israel.

"We are humbled by the amazing and generous outpouring from the Rutgers community and the community at large," the Center for Islamic Life at Rutgers said in a statement following the arrest. "These acts of support from the outright donations, donations in kind to replace stolen and damaged items, flowers, balloons, calls and emails have been overwhelming and heartening. We are thankful and grateful."

The FBI led the investigation with assistance from the state Attorney General’s Office, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office and the Rutgers University Police Department. The investigation is ongoing with additional charges pending, according to university police, which asked that anyone with information contact its Detective Bureau.

Anti-Muslim hate incidents across U.S.

Islamophobic incidents have reached record levels in recent months, according to CAIR. The civil rights advocacy group said it received more than 8,000 complaints in 2023 – the highest in its 30-year history – and nearly half of the complaints came in the final three months of the year.

In CAIR's 2023 report, the organization said the "primary force behind this wave of heightened Islamophobia was the escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine in October 2023."

CAIR tracked 8,061 complaints in 2023, shattering the previous high of just over 6,700 in 2021. Complaints include immigration and asylum cases, employment discrimination, education discrimination and hate crimes and incidents.

The American Civil Liberties Union has tracked dozens of anti-mosque incidents across the nation since 2005. Mosques tend to be busier on Ramadan nights when Muslims come together in a communal prayer known as Tarawih, and they also congregate on Eid for a special prayer and festivities.

Earlier this month, a man was charged with felony vandalism as a hate crime after he allegedly broke several windows of the Masjid Al-Tawheed mosque, according to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. In Chicago, police are investigating a possible hate crime after a man followed several women into the Downtown Islamic Center and yelled anti-Muslim rhetoric, NBC Chicago reported.

Contributing: Krystal Nurse, USA TODAY; Hannan Adely, Bergen Record

This article originally appeared on Rutgers Islamic center vandalism: Feds charge man with federal crime