VERO BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The American man who launched a suicide bombing against Syrian government troops grew up in Central Florida and attended several colleges in the state before dropping out and moving abroad.
US officials identified the bomber as Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha of Florida but have said little else. Records show a person with that name lived with his family in a two-story stucco home in a gated community plunked among the orange groves on the edge of Vero Beach, the historic winter training ground for the Dodgers baseball team.
Abu-Salha was 22, according to records from one of the colleges.
Cynthia Heinz, a former member of the neighborhood homeowners association in Vero Beach, said the family had moved twice within the neighborhood since they lost their home to foreclosure a few years back. Before the family moved, they lived around the corner from Heinz. Records list the family has having previously lived in West Palm Beach and Fort Pierce.
“I used to see the mom walking around. She would accompany her youngest son when he went out to play,” she said. “She was always very sweet”
Heinz told The Associated Press she rarely saw Moner Abu-Salha or his older brother, who were already teenagers by then.
She said Michelle Abu-Salha, the mother who dressed conservatively in a traditional Hijab over her hair, was always friendly, as was her teenage daughter, who went to school with Heinz’s son. Heinz said she had less contact with Abu-Salha’s father.
A youth league statistics website listed Moner Abu-Salha as playing for the Indian River Warriors basketball team in 2007.
Abu-Salha’s former Vero Beach neighbor Bill Miller told The Washington Post his son used to play basketball with Abu-Salha, and that Abu-Salha was once suspended from school for fighting after some boys made fun of his mother’s clothing.
Another neighbor, John Knudsen, told WPTV in West Palm Beach that the family was “super nice” to his daughter, who used to cut their lawn.
“I still can’t believe it,” Knudsen said. “This whole thing is crazy.”
An Associated Press reporter knocked on the door at an address for the family in Vero Beach but was told to leave by a sheriff’s deputy.
Seminole State College of Florida confirmed in a statement that Abu-Salha enrolled in the school in August of 2011 but never graduated and that he previously attended Keiser University and Indian River State College.
College Spokesman Jay Davis said the school’s last contact with Abu-Salha was in February of 2012, when an adviser tried to contact Abu-Salha. He did not know if the outreach had been successful.
At least 160,000 have died in the fighting between government and opposition forces seeking the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Opposition forces had identified the man who carried out a May 25 truck bombing outside a restaurant in the government-held northwestern city of Idlib as Abu Hurayra al-Amriki and said he was a US citizen. The name al-Amriki means “the American.” It wasn’t clear how many people died in the bombing.
Opposition rebels with the al-Qaeda-linked insurgency al-Nusra Front said Abu-Salha’s truck contained 16 tons of explosives to tear down the restaurant known as a gathering site for Syrian troops.
The truck bombing was one of four by suicide bombers who attacked over the course of a day in the area in Idlib province.
Asaad Kanjo, an opposition activist based in the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province, said he heard that Abu-Salha arrived in Syria a few months ago and tore up his American passport upon arrival.
Kanjo said even a local commander with the Nusra Front was surprised about Abu-Salha. Kanjo said the commander remarked that many people try hard to get an American passport, and this man came here and got rid of his.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.