Skip to main content

U.S.: Jihadi featured in suicide bombing video in Syria grew up in Florida

By Evan Perez, Greg Botelho, Hamdi Alkhshali and Salma Abdelaziz, CNN
updated 9:41 PM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Officials: U.S. focusing on network funneling money, recruits to Syria
  • Radical Islamists heap praise upon the American for his "martyrdom"
  • Official: The U.S. believes the suicide bomber is Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha
  • U.S. officials said he was an American citizen who went to school in Florida

Washington (CNN) -- The truck was loaded with munitions, then driven up a hillside in northern Syria. Moments later, there was a massive blast followed by cries of "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great" in Arabic, and the rattling of gunfire.

What made this suicide bombing stand out was not that it happened -- as such attacks have become fairly commonplace in war-torn Syria -- but the identity of one of the men who carried out.

He was American.

In an online video and social media, radical Islamists claiming responsibility for the blast touted one of the attackers as Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki, an American.

Late Thursday, two U.S. officials confirmed their boast.

The man was a U.S. citizen who grew up in Florida and went to school there. Investigators are interviewing family members.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday evening the American is believed to be Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha.

Whichever name one uses -- Abu-Salha or Al-Amriki -- he was among a group of Americans whom intelligence agents have been trying to keep tabs on since they went to Syria some months ago to join extremists in the fight against the Syrian government.

Smiling, holding a cat

Abu Farouk al Shamy, a spokesman for the rebel Suqour al-Sham battalion, told CNN that the Sunday attack was executed in coordination with the al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda-linked organization that the U.S. government has blacklisted as a foreign terror organization.

One video on YouTube, with the title "the American martyrdom from al-Nusra Front," identifies the suicide bomber as Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki. This video and several other social media posts feature a picture of a bearded man with that name, smiling and holding a cat.

Al-Amriki in Arabic means "the American." The name Abu Hurayra, which is popular among Sunni Muslims, offers little clue as to the man's identity. Abu Hurayra was a companion of the Islamic prophet Mohammed and the narrator of Hadith.

Syrian activists say the video is from Sunday and shows militants' preparations and ultimate attack on Syrian military checkpoints in Jabal Al-Arba'een, near the city of Ariha in Idlib province and believed to be along a key rebel supply route.

According to Syrian activists and social media postings, four vehicles laden with explosives were part of the attack. One YouTube video says the American detonated the biggest one, which contained 17 tons of explosives, including artillery shells. It is not clear what exactly this man's involvement was, including whether he was driving an armored truck, a tanker or some other vehicle.

Islamists praise the American

Even if he clearly did not act alone, it is the man identified as Abu Hurayra who has gotten a lot of attention on websites and social media venues tied to radical Islamists.

That includes a tweet by a man with the handle Abu Suleiman al-Muhajer, whose bio identifies him as belonging to al Qaeda in the Levant, the umbrella organization for the al-Nusra Front.

His tweet, which was published on the radical Islamist website Hanein, features the alleged American's picture and the words, "Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki performed a martyrdom operation in Idlib, Jabal Al-Arba'een. May Allah accept him."

On the heels of this suicide attack, counterterrorism officials are focusing on young Americans who head off to wage war in the embattled Middle Eastern nation, U.S. officials told CNN.

U.S. authorities are investigating a network of recruiters who officials believe are funneling money and young fighters to Syria, the officials said. Their aim is to stop the flow of money and recruits to Syria.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have expressed concerns about Americans joining the fight in Syria, including with groups like the jihadist al-Nusra Front. The worry is that they and other Westerners might pose a threat when they return a home, or perhaps end up targeting Europe or Western interests in the Middle East.

"There's going to be a diaspora out of Syria," FBI Director James Comey said last week. "And we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11."

U.S. closer to expanding training for Syrian rebels

6 chemical weapons inspectors reported kidnapped in Syria now safe

Gas attack alleged in Syria; 21 die in shelling

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
Aqsa Mahmood,19, would listen to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. Then this Glasgow girl became an ISIS bride.
updated 4:23 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.
updated 12:22 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
ISIS has released video of the aftermath of a mass execution. Another video shows alleged captured Peshmerga soldiers.
updated 5:33 AM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
The number of people who have fled Syria and registered as refugees amid the country's civil war will surpass 3 million Friday.
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but died more than 6,000 miles away in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must, somehow, go through Syria.
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
updated 8:48 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
updated 5:33 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
updated 7:41 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
updated 5:17 PM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
updated 4:25 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
updated 4:04 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 2, 2014
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
updated 12:16 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
More than 100,000 people reportedly have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising in 2011 spiraled into a civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT