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, has been identified only by his 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 U.S. before he left for Syria. Federal authorities are investigating whether he was recruited or radicalized online.
In photos purportedly showing Abu Hurayra 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 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 Hurayra was well known to us in Suqour al Sham for his kindness and bravery in combat.”
Abu Farouk said that he never knew the American’s real name, explaining that foreign members of Syrian rebel groups are instructed to adopt a nickname, or Kunya, in Arabic and to never reveal their actual name for security reasons. Abu Hurayra was a companion of the Prophet Mohammed considered one of the most important figures in early Islamic history.
“Their families could be targeted by police or the CIA for coming to Syria,” he explained. “He would never share his name or show his passport, but we knew him to be American.”
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 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 American suicide bomber’s ties to Florida were first reported by CNN. The Washington Post reported he was from South Florida.
The office of Sen. Bill Nelson said the Florida Democrat has been briefed on the situation. “The authorities know who the individual is and where he is from, but are withholding that information for now,” Nelson’s office said.
According to his office, the senator has asked broader security questions about other Americans who have reportedly been associated with groups tied to al Qaida.
Several weeks ago, FBI Director James Comey told reporters that investigators believe “dozens” of U.S. residents may have traveled to Syria to participate in the civil war.
“With time, more people are traveling from here to there,” Comey said, adding that “it’s gotten at least marginally worse.”
In a separate briefing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper estimated upwards of 7,500 foreign fighters have joined the Syrian war. Comey estimated that “thousands” of these fighters came from European countries.
“There is going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point,” Comey said, “and we are determined not to let lines get drawn between Syria today and a future 9/11.”
The overall problem of U.S. and other foreign-born fighters entering Syria has likewise been studied closely by the congressional intelligence committees. In February, Clapper told several panels in open sessions that the “the 7,500-plus foreign fighters from some 50 countries have gravitated to Syria,” including “a small group of Af/Pak al Qaida veterans who have aspirations for external attack in Europe, if not the homeland itself,” he said, referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“That’s one of our major concerns,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview Friday. “We have a good, confirmed idea of those who have left the Western world for Syria, but we don’t know what we’re missing.”
Nunes, like Comey, voiced concern that foreign fighters with European passports may ultimately find their way into the United States.
Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald reporters Carol Rosenberg, Juan O. Tamayo and Jay Weaver, and McClatchy reporters Chris Adams and Michael Doyle in Washington D.C. and Mitchell Prothero in Istanbul, contributed to this report.