VERO BEACH, Fla. — The storefront Islamic center tucked in a nondescript shopping center here has no imam, so the task of leading the small group of men and boys gathered to pray usually falls to the eldest, or the one who knows the Quran the best.
Moner Mohammad Abu-salha was only a teenager, but the honor would sometimes go to him.
“They would encourage him, because he was so enthusiastic,” recalled Brandon Blanchard, who attended the center and knew Abu-salha for eight years.
Now Abu-salha’s friends and family are trying to piece together how — and where — that passion for Islam and teaching children about the Quran turned into something more disturbing. Abu-salha, 22, died last week in Syria when he drove a truck loaded with 16 tons of explosives to a mountaintop restaurant where government forces often gathered. It was one of four suicide bombings in that province that day, in which a total of 39 people died.
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The FBI is also investigating how Abu-salha became radicalized and whether he had connections to other Americans who traveled to Syria. FBI agents have interviewed family members in Florida, and bureau analysts are examining whether the Nusra Front, the rebel group Abu-salha joined, played a role in radicalizing him before he left the United States.
Abu-salha was born in West Palm Beach to an American mother and Palestinian father. The parents had lost touch with their son over a year ago and were distraught when they saw his photo in the news on Friday, Dr. Taher Husainy, the leader of the community Islamic center, told TCPalm, a local news site.
The Abu-salhas have denied requests for an interview.
“The father had a feeling — he was afraid of this,” Husainy was quoted as saying. “But you know when you’re afraid of something, but you hope it won’t happen to you.”
Abu-salha’s name is pronounced Mo-neer, but his classmates called him “Mo.” One of four siblings, he spent his middle and high-school years in Vero Beach.
“He loved to play basketball anywhere,” said Ta’Quan McDew, who played with Abu-salha in both middle and high school. “He was really funny and really outgoing. We never discussed religion.”
The two hung out at his house doing typical adolescent things, such as playing video games. On Facebook, he posted Islamic prayers and sayings alongside selfies he took to show off his biceps. He liked the Miami Heat basketball team and the “Call of Duty” video game.
His parents stressed the need for him to get an education, but his attendance in school grew increasingly sporadic. When his parents insisted he stay home to study, he would sneak out to pray instead, Blanchard recalled.
“I thought it was really cool that he would do that,” he said.
Abu-salha dropped out of Sebastian River High School and not long afterward, his mother enrolled him at St. James Academy, a correspondence school in nearby Fort Pierce where, for $150, a high-school diploma is earned by completing assignments at home.
James Mason, the school’s director, remembers meeting Abu-salha, who had been having problems at his school and had clearly been dragged to St. James by his mother. Mason said he remembered her, because she was dressed in traditional Muslim clothing and made a point to call the office and insist that the boy’s surname be spelled with a hyphen.
“One way or another, he was going to have a high-school diploma,” Mason said. “His mother was going to make sure he graduated. This way she could control it, because the work is done at home.”
Abu-salha completed all the coursework in just two months. He graduated in March 2009, earlier than he would have if he had stayed in high school.
He first enrolled at Keiser University, a private school in Fort Lauderdale, but stopped attending by March 2010, according to a school spokeswoman. He later took preparatory classes for a physical-therapy assistant associate degree program at Indian River State College, but he lasted there for only two semesters.
He then transferred to Seminole State College in August 2011 to pursue an associate in arts degree. He was enrolled part time during the spring of 2012, but a school spokesman said the last contact with him was through an adviser halfway through that semester.
Abu-salha told friends he was moving to Orlando with his brother. Then he said he was moving again, this time to Jordan. He said he had taken courses to become a nursing assistant, and his father had lined up work for him in Jordan.
“I just know he was tired of being in the United States and wanted to be in an Arabic-speaking country,” Blanchard said.
“He all of a sudden disappeared,” Husainy told TCPalm. “Then he appeared in Jordan and said he was working at a hospital (as a nurse). After two months or so he disappeared again. Then after six months or something, he sent an email to the parents saying ‘I’m OK, I’m happy.’ ”
His friends believe Abu-salha was recruited after he left Florida. “When he left, that was the furthest thing in his mind,” Blanchard said. “He just wanted to be a good nurse and help people out. None of this was even in his vocabulary. If he did lie, he did a good job, because I certainly did not expect this. He wasn’t supposed to do that. We were supposed to go to college, pray and study the Quran.”