MIAMI — The young American suicide bomber who blew up a truck he was driving in Syria last weekend previously lived in Fort Pierce, law enforcement sources told the Miami Herald on Friday.
The man, in his 20s and believed to have been the first American suicide bomber in Syria, was identified by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Friday as Moner Mohammad Abusalha. She provided no other details about him.
Abu-Salha went by the nom de guerre Abu Hurayra al-Ameriki, or Abu Hurayra the American. It's unclear when he traveled to Syria or for how long before that he was in Fort Pierce, which is about 130 miles north of Miami.
Law enforcement officials were speaking Friday with the man's family and friends — some of them elsewhere in Florida — and tracing his movements, including his online activity, in the United States before he left for Syria. Federal authorities are investigating whether he was recruited or radicalized online.
In photos purportedly showing Abu-Salha in Syria, he appears smiling, with a reddish-brown beard. In one photo, he is holding a cat.
He was confirmed to have taken part in a joint suicide bombing on Sunday involving both al-Qaida's Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, and the Islamic Front's Suqour al-Sham, according to Suqour spokesman Abu Farouk al-Shami, who spoke with McClatchy Newspapers via Skype.
"It was an operation between mujahedeen from both Suqour al-Sham and the Nusra Front," Abu Farouk said of the blast, which targeted a Syrian military position in Idlib province and included at least three bombers and tons of explosives. Abu-Salha "was well-known to us in Suqour al-Sham for his kindness and bravery in combat."
In a martyrdom video released on YouTube, titled "The American Martyrdom for the Nusra Front," the suicide bomber could be 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 that could not be independently verified.
The Nusra Front rarely grants interviews to Western media, and spokesmen were unavailable for comment.
The U.S. government designated the group a terrorist organization in 2012, saying at the time that Nusra was an alias for al-Qaida in Iraq, which was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, to battle the U.S. presence there. That designation was recently updated to recognize that the organization is officially seen as an al-Qaida branch operating in Syria.
The office of Sen. Bill Nelson said the Florida Democrat has been briefed on the situation.