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The all-American al Qaeda suicide bomber

By Peter Bergen
updated 2:29 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha recorded videotape for al Qaeda before suicide bombing
  • Peter Bergen says the 22-year-old's story highlights risks of Western fighters in Syria
  • He says hundreds of Europeans are taking part in the war, and so are some Americans
  • Bergen: Tracking the foreign fighters is a key priority for counterterrorism efforts

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- Seconds before he detonated the massive truck bomb that killed him and a number of Syrian soldiers two months ago, Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha radioed other fighters in al Qaeda to say, "I see paradise and I can smell paradise."

That in itself may not be unusual. But what should focus our attention is the identity of the bomber -- he was an American.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

The son of a Palestinian father and an Italian-American mother, Abu-Salha grew up in Vero Beach, Florida, where he played high school football.

Abu-Salha, who was 22, is the first American suicide bomber known to have died in Syria.

On Monday, an al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria released a half-hour videotape in which Abu-Salha explained his rationale for the impending suicide mission.

The video is an important window into the worldview of a Western recruit to al Qaeda drawn to the Syrian civil war, which is now in its fourth year. And the video also helps illuminate the recruitment techniques that the group has used to draw Westerners to the conflict, estimated to now number around 2,000.

Syrian government forces walk down a street in Halfaya, Syria, after taking the city from rebel forces on Friday, September 12. The United Nations estimates more than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war. Syrian government forces walk down a street in Halfaya, Syria, after taking the city from rebel forces on Friday, September 12. The United Nations estimates more than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war.
Syrian civil war in 2014
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Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014 Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014

In the video, Abu-Salha is shown tearing up his American passport and then the passport is set on fire. Next he is shown wearing a green camouflage vest and holding an AK-47 rifle delivering a diatribe to the camera directly.

Speaking in a strong American accent, Abu-Salha explicitly appeals to fellow militants in the States and the United Kingdom, saying that coming to fight with al Qaeda was so simple that he arrived in Syria "with only $20 in my pocket." Abu-Salha explained that "Allah made it easy for me" as he traveled from the States to Turkey and from there crossed over into neighboring Syria.

Abu-Salha paints a grim picture of life in the United States compared with the supposed joys of his life as a holy warrior: "Just sitting down five minutes drinking a cup of tea with mujahedeen (holy warriors) is better than anything I've ever experienced in my whole life. I lived in America! I know how it is. You have all the fancy amusement parks, and the restaurants, and the food, and all this crap and the cars and you think you're happy. You're not happy, you're never happy. I was never happy. I was always sad and depressed. Life sucked. ... All you do is work 40, 50, 60 hours a week."

Over footage of a woman in an all-enveloping black burqa who is shooting an automatic rifle, Abu-Salha tells the story of a Russian woman working for al Qaeda who conducted a suicide operation in Pakistan. Abu-Salha says, "She's a thousand men. Not like you men who sit at home." In other words, you are not a real Muslim man if you don't travel to come join the jihad.

Abu-Salha also paints a vision of what life in paradise will be for those who are killed fighting in Syria. In paradise, he says, "A tree will pick the fruit off of itself and hand it to you," while you will find a woman so beautiful that "you would die from her beauty."

Abu-Salha's videotape establishes some key recruiting themes for Westerners whom al Qaeda wants to draw into the Syrian war: That it is purportedly easy to come and fight in Syria; that life in the West is nothing compared with life you will lead as a holy warrior; that real men do jihad; and if you do end up getting "martyred" in the war, "paradise" will welcome you with beautiful women.

Toward the end of the tape, Abu-Salha contemplates his own impending suicidal attack and death. Fighting back tears, Abu-Salha addresses his family back in the Florida, saying, "I love you Mom." He also addresses his oldest brother: "I love you bro. ... Look after our sister and our little brother."

At the end of the tape, a truck that is decorated with the distinctive al Qaeda black flag with white writing is driven off, and then in the distance there is a massive explosion.

Abu-Salha is one of about 100 Americans who have traveled to Syria or have tried to do so as the civil war there grinds on. Not all of these U.S. citizens have joined al Qaeda or its splinter groups, but a number have done so. The New York Times reported Thursday that Abu-Salha had returned to the States for several months after he had received militant training in Syria and before he returned there to conduct his final mission.

So far nine Americans have been charged with traveling, attempting to travel or facilitating the travel of others to fight in Syria with militant jihadist groups, according to a count by the New America Foundation.

The most recent case was that of Michael Todd Wolfe, 23, who pleaded guilty to attempting to join an al Qaeda splinter group in Syria. Wolfe was arrested June 17 as he tried to fly out of George Bush International Airport in Houston.

Syria is attracting a lot more Westerners than the Iraq War ever did because it's the perfect Sunni jihad. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad belongs to the small Alawite sect and is therefore considered a heretic by many Sunnis; al-Assad runs a secular regime, and therefore he is considered by Sunni militants to be an apostate, and he is inflicting a total war on his Sunni population.

As a result, there are many hundreds of "foreign fighters" who have traveled to Syria from European "visa waiver" countries who do not need visas to travel to the United States, including 700 from France, 450 from the United Kingdom, 270 from Germany and dozens from each of the Scandinavian countries.

U.S. officials assert that jihadist groups in Syria are already shifting their focus to conducting attacks on the United States and Europe. Speaking at a security conference last week in Aspen, Colorado, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said some Syrian jihadists "are actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission."

The problem in Syria is compounded by the fact that, according to both British counterterrorism officials and U.S. intelligence officials, senior al Qaeda members based in Pakistan have traveled to Syria to direct operations there. They are known as the Khorasan group. Khorasan is an ancient term for an Islamic empire that once incorporated what is now Afghanistan.

What can be done? Western governments are keenly aware of the problem of Syrian veterans coming home both radicalized and trained. The problem is that in some European countries with hundreds of returnees it is just not possible to monitor all of them. That was vividly illustrated by the case of Mehdi Nemmouche, who traveled to Syria last year and is accused in the May 24 shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, that left four people dead.

Information sharing between Western governments about the identities of those who have traveled to Syria and have received militant training is the key to preventing more incidents such as the one at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

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