The South Florida jihadist identified this week as the first American suicide bomber in Syria grew up in an all-American neighborhood where residents said they were acquainted with the young man and his family, but few knew them closely.
In the gated community of Lakes at Sandridge, where children ride bicycles in the streets and neighbors work in their yards, residents said they recognized Moner Mohammad Abusalha, 22, as the boy who used to love to play basketball and occasionally cause mischief — even if they hadn’t seen him around in a few years.
Abusalha is believed by FBI investigators to be among “dozens” of U.S. residents who have traveled to Syria to participate in that country’s civil war.
On May 25, Abusalha drove one of several trucks packed with tons of explosives into a restaurant in the government-held city of Idlib. It is unknown how many people Abusalha killed in the bombing of the restaurant, which was a popular gathering place for Syrian troops.
The bombed-out remains of the Syrian site, pictured in videos and photographs sent out through social media and posted online, are half the world away from the gated community where the suicide bomber’s parents, Michelle and Mohammad Abusalha, live in a tan-colored stucco house on Orangewood Lane in Vero Beach.
Charles Lumford, a neighbor, said he would wave at the Abusalha family and say “Hi” from time to time, but didn't really know them. Lumford has lived in the house since 2011.
“Michelle used to live there about two years before I bought it,” he said, adding he doesn't think the son ever lived in the community.
Residents are familiar with each other, and neighbors said Michelle and Mohammad Abusalha have lived in the house for about a year, though they’ve been in the neighborhood for longer.
The family had moved twice within the neighborhood since they lost their home to foreclosure a few years back, living in two different homes within a block of each other.
A gray Ford Econoline van and a silver Honda CRV were parked in the home’s driveway Saturday. The doorbell had been removed from the entryway. Blinds were drawn on the living room windows, and sheets covered the glass panels alongside the front door.
A woman's voice inside the house responded “No comment” in English and again in Arabic when a reporter knocked on the door.
Mark Hill, 46, lives across the street from the Abusalhas, and said he believes the parents live in the house with two boys and a girl. But he hasn't seen Moner Abusalha there in “a couple of years,” he said.
“The parents and family are totally normal,” he said. “They walk around and wave at everybody.”
Hill said he remembers Moner Abusalha as a boy who liked to play basketball and always ran around in shorts and a T-shirt, and added that he feels for the Abusalha family.
“My heart’s breaking for them. They lost a son, and they can’t get any peace,” he said, referring to the media’s swarming presence in the neighborhood.
According to opposition forces in Syria who claimed responsibility for the May 25 attack, the suicide bomber was known by his nom de guerre of Abu Hurayra al Amriki, and said he was a U.S. citizen.
The name Amriki means “American,” and “Abu Hurayra” means “father of the kitten,” or “of the kitten,” and is the name of a companion of the Prophet Mohammed. Rebel leaders Abu Farouk al Shami, a spokesman for the Islamic Front’s Suqour al Sham, one of the two groups that were behind the joint suicide bombing, spoke with McClatchy via Skype and said he never knew the American’s real name.
In a martyrdom video released on YouTube, titled “The American Martyrdom for the Nusra Front,” the suicide bomber is seen praying, playing with cats and preparing for his apparent mission. The video ends with a tremendous explosion that is said to have been from the bomb he detonated.
Abu Farouk said the tape was authentic, but his claim could not be independently verified.
In the gated community where Moner Abusalha grew up, neighbors still recall a boy who did the things that boys do.
Resident Rob Hill said everyone knows the Abusalhas, but that family members kept to themselves.
He said the only interaction he had with them was about four years ago, with the two boys.
“They were doing the same things my kids do,’’ he said. “Throwing rocks.”