Teen to terrorist: A Florida man’s journey

A week after a South Florida man was identified as the first American suicide bomber in Syria, the actions of 22-year-old Moner Mohammed Abusalha remain a mystery to neighbors and others who knew the young man’s family.

Abusalha died in Syria on May 25 when he drove one of several trucks packed with explosives and rammed into a restaurant in the government-held city of Idlib. At least 37 people reportedly died in the attack.

Those who knew him in Vero Beach are struggling to understand how the young man they knew as “Mo” was transformed from teenager into terrorist.

Neighbor Bill Miller said the Muslim boy seemed to want to “acclimate” to American life in his Lakes at Sandridge community.

Miller’s children were friendly with Abusalha and his younger sister, saying they were “happy-go-lucky buddies.”

“He was always welcome in my home; he played football and basketball with my kids,” Miller said.

He recalls how Abusalha and his sister would come over for dinner and stay for dessert, and how on most weekend mornings he would come knock on the family’s door and ask whether Miller’s son could come over and hang out.

Those who knew the Abusalha family — an American mother and Palestinian father with four children — did not see any signs of discontent or anger.

The family, who neighbors said could be seen walking around the neighborhood waving and speaking to neighbors — Michelle the mother and her daughter in their burqas — have remained silent to the swarm of media that has come to the community. They declined an interview request from the Miami Herald.

But Taher Husainy, the leader of the community Islamic center, told TCPalm, a local news site, that the young man’s parents had lost touch with their son over a year ago and were distraught when they saw his photo in the news.

“The father had a feeling — he was afraid of this,” Husainy was quoted as saying. “But you know when you’re afraid of something, but you hope it won’t happen to you.”

Brandon Blanchard, who attended a storefront Islamic center in Vero Beach and knew Abusalha for eight years, said the young man had long wanted to leave the United States. “I just know he was tired of being in the United States and wanted to be in an Arabic-speaking country,” he said.

Altaf Hussein, a parishioner at the Vero Beach Musallah, said that he had seen Abusalha praying there before but there was nothing radical or strange about him. “He came to pray and he left,” Hussein said.

Abusalha attended Sebastian River High School and eventually dropped out. Administrators at the high school declined to be interviewed. He later received a diploma from St. James Academy in Fort Pierce. The academy’s director, James Mason, said that Abusalha only came to the academy twice, back in 2009. The first visit was with his mother, Michelle, to pick up the materials and coursework he needed to earn his diploma.

“It looked like he had dropped out and she wanted him to get his diploma so he could get a job,” Mason said over the phone. “He took the program, took the assignments and came back about a month later and had done enough to get his diploma.”

Mason said he remembered Abusalha’s mother because she was dressed in traditional Muslim clothing and made a point to call the office and insist that the boy’s surname be spelled with a hyphen. On his two Facebook accounts, Mr. Abusalha spelled it as one word.

Miller said that Abusalha’s parents seemed to be trying to keep him on track after he dropped out of high school. He eventually attended classes at Keiser University, Indian River State College and Seminole State College in Sanford. He never earned a degree and, according to neighbors, was apparently living in Orlando with his older brother, Mahrous.

Miller said that Abusalha was a gregarious, confident kid in high school, but once he got away from school he might have begun to lose his way.

“Because he wasn’t in school and wasn’t involved in group activities he had to fend for himself,” Miller said. “I don’t think Mo was so headstrong that he would do this on his own.”

Bassem Chaaban, the outreach director for the Islamic Center of Orlando, said they had no information about Abusalha.

“We’re an open community and we don’t have any recollection of him visiting any of our centers or speaking with any of our imams,” Chaaban said in a telephone interview.

FBI investigators believe that Abusalha is among “dozens” of U.S. residents who have traveled to Syria to participate in the civil war there. The Associated Press reported that a group of men may have traveled from Minnesota to Syria to battle alongside rebel forces.

Abusalha joined the Nusra Front and was known by the 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.

In a YouTube video called “The American Martyrdom for the Nusra Front,” Abusalha is shown praying, playing with cats and preparing for his apparent mission. The video ends with an explosion that is believed to be from the detonated bomb.

Back in the Lakes at Sandridge, Miller said that he and other neighbors still wonder where and how Abusalha was guided to his fatal suicide mission.

“I think the people over there took advantage of him,” said Miller. He said he last saw “Mo” about two years ago. “I don’t believe he left this neighborhood and said, ‘This is my calling.’ ”

The New York Times contributed to this article.