VERO BEACH, Fla. — A U.S. suicide bomber who a militant group said detonated 16 tons of explosives at a mountaintop restaurant in Syria last week was remembered in the suburban Florida subdivision where he grew up for one thing: his love of basketball.
The bomber, Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, grew up in Lakes at Sandridge, a gated community in Vero Beach, a city about 140 miles north of Miami. He attended local schools and played for a traveling youth basketball team, neighbors said Saturday.
“He’d play basketball with any hoop anywhere he could find one,” said Mark Hill, who lives across the street from Abu-Salha’s parents. “He’d play basketball with anything. He was out there playing all the time.”
Hill, who has been a neighbor of the Abu-Salha family since 2006, said he had not seen Abu-Salha in some time — until his face suddenly appeared in television reports as someone who had helped carry out a bombing in northern Syria.
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Abu-Salha, who was in his early 20s, died last Sunday in Idlib province, where he had traveled after spending two months in a training camp for the militant group the Nusra Front. A statement posted online by the Nusra Front said the American had been one of four suicide bombers sent to open an assault on government forces near the city of Ariha in northern Syria. According to the statement, the American drove a vehicle loaded with 16 tons of explosives to attack the restaurant, where government forces were based. A death toll has not been released.
U.S. officials said it was the first time an American had been involved in a suicide attack in Syria. But in his hometown, where he lived before he took on the nom de guerre Abu Hurayra al-Amriki, his family was known for offering friendly waves while taking frequent walks around the block dressed in traditional Muslim clothing. Al-Amriki means “the American.”
His family owns several grocery stores in the area, Florida corporate records show. Neighbors said the family has four children, including a daughter who graduated from high school last year and a son who is in the sixth grade. A senior law-enforcement official said Abu-Salha’s father is Palestinian, but it was not clear where he lived before the United States.
Several neighbors noted that they lived in at least three homes within the two-block radius.
The parents, Mohammad and Michelle, owned a house nearby, but it was foreclosed on in 2009. They later rented another home up the street but were forced to move again about a year ago when their landlords also went into foreclosure.
They now live around the corner on Orangewood Lane, in a smaller house with a two-car garage in an area where 3,000-square-foot homes rent for $1,400 a month. A woman who spoke from behind a closed door Saturday said the family did not want to speak to the news media.
“They are as nice as neighbors can be these days,” said Martin Zickert, a retired Air Force colonel who lives next door. “The mother is always covered except for her face. I see them walking in the neighborhood in full dress — the men and women — and I am thinking: ‘Wow, that’s got to be hot.’ ”
Michael Marine, a former teammate who played with Abu-Salha on the Indian River Warriors basketball team, said he attended Sebastian River High School in the nearby city of Sebastian. Abu-Salha played for a year in 2007 when he was in the eighth or ninth grade, Marine said. He remembered noticing Abu-Salha’s mother in the stands wearing a hijab. The family, he said, seemed committed to the Muslim faith.
“He was a nice kid, never anything weird,” Marine said. “Everyone got along with him. He was just a normal kid.”
Abu-Salha was not the most athletic member of the basketball team, Marine said, but he was outgoing and funny, so the players were glad to have him. A younger brother was often by his side, he added.
“He wasn’t very good,” he said. “It was more like we had an extra jersey, so we gave it to him.”
Records show that Abu-Salha also lived in apartments in Fort Pierce and in a neighborhood in eastern Orlando, where residents said he moved out seven months ago.
Rebel groups in Syria have consistently tried to recruit Americans, according to intelligence experts.
“Americans are the crown jewels for these groups,” said Rick Nelson, a former senior counterterrorism official at the National Security Council and the National Counterterrorism Center. “It’s like recruiting a Soviet agent during the Cold War. It’s very difficult to do, but when you do it, it is a big deal. So, this is a very big deal. And because they’re the crown jewels, they will continue to target Americans.”
Terrorist groups recruit Americans because their passports provide them with the ability to travel to most countries. American law-enforcement and intelligence agencies and others have studied why Americans would become radicalized, but they have not come up with many answers, Nelson said.
“There’s no stereotype; some have sympathy with the cause, some are angry the U.S. is not doing more in Syria, some are just looking for social acceptance with others,” he said. “We just don’t know what causes it, and that is what makes it such a difficult issue.”