TAMPA (CBS Tampa/AP) — U.S. officials are concerned that the American who carried out a suicide attack in Syria was able to return to his home in Florida after training with an al-Qaeda affiliate overseas.
CBS News reports that Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha returned to Florida after training with the Nusra Front in Syria. The 22-year-old carried out the suicide bomb attack in Syria on May 25.
Juan Zarate, CBS News’ national security analyst, says there is a concern among U.S. officials that radicalized American terrorists will be able to set foot on U.S. soil again.
“Is this a local fight? Are they going there to really just battle the Syrian forces and to topple (President Bashar) Assad or is there even a small percentage of these folks who are going to return home and turn their sights on western victims and their fellow citizens? And that’s the real concern for U.S. counterterrorism officials,” Zarate stated.
An estimated 200 Americans traveled to Syria since the country’s civil war started in 2011. Tom Sanderson, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells CBS News it’s hard to tell how many of them could pose a threat to the U.S.
“To know that would be indicative of a very deep level of intelligence on the person, to be able to know that he, most likely, would have the inclination to attack the U.S. upon return or to attack a U.S. equity overseas,” Sanderson told CBS News.
Zarate explained it would be difficult for the FBI to constantly follow someone like Abu-Salha if they previously displayed no signs of becoming radicalized. Abu-Salha grew up in Florida and attended several colleges before dropping out and moving abroad.
“The FBI really, despite the lore out there, isn’t an MI-5. They’re not outfitted to follow each and every suspect for 24 hours, seven days a week if they haven’t committed a crime or aren’t under investigation for having committed a crime,” Zarate told CBS News.
Thousands of foreign fighters have come to Syria from around the world to fight against Assad’s forces after the uprising against his government began three years ago. Seth Jones, a former U.S. counter-terrorism official, told CBS News that between 1,500 to 2,500 Sunni extremists from Europe have gone to fight in Syria since 2012, joining terror groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“The U.S. had a pretty good intelligence collection capability in Afghanistan in Iraq, including human intelligence collection, including people on the ground, including special operators. I don’t think it’s a highly resourced effort right now,” Jones told CBS News about why it’s hard to track westerners who join groups in the Mideast.
Sanderson added that the U.S. could become a target for terror groups who have been focused on sectarian conflicts the longer they stay involved in the Middle East.
“Given Abu-Salha, given the massive increase in foreign fighters in the region, given the potential involvement of U.S. forces in Iraq … the chances of an attack on the U.S. are increasing because of those factors,” Sanderson told CBS News.
The Nusra Front released video last month that showed Abu-Salha with other fighters before the May 25 attack that targeted several army positions at the same time. It said two of the other three suicide attackers in the assault in the government-held northwestern city of Idlib were from foreign countries, including one who was identified as being from the Maldives.
Abu-Salha appears smiling in the video and speaks in broken Arabic.
“I want to rest in the afterlife, in heaven. There is nothing here and the heart is not resting,” Abu-Salha says. “Heaven is better. When people die they either go to heaven or hell. There is happiness beyond explanation.”
The video, released by Nusra Front’s media arm, al-Manara al-Baydha, was posted on jihadi websites. It corresponded with Associated Press reporting about the attack and Abu-Salha.
It’s unknown how many people were killed in the bombing. Opposition rebels with the Nusra Front said Abu-Salha’s truck was laden with 16 tons of explosives to tear down the al-Fanar restaurant, a gathering site for Syrian troops. The other suicide attackers targeted nearby army positions.
The war, which began in 2011, has since taken on strong sectarian overtones, pitting a Sunni-led insurgency that includes al-Qaida-inspired extremist groups against a government dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Syria’s uprising began with peaceful protests in March 2011 but escalated into an armed revolt when government forces launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent. The conflict has killed at least 170,000 people, nearly a third of them civilians, according to activists. Nearly 3 million Syrians have fled the country.
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