Reuters / Joshua Roberts
In a startling admission, counterterrorism agencies said an American suicide bomber who made frequent trips to the Middle East was not under surveillance – and could not be unless there was an informant tipping them off to his activities.
Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a US citizen, made frequent trips to the Middle East before taking his own life by driving 16 tons of explosives into a restaurant used as check point by Syrian soldiers on May 25, 2014. Despite taking several trips prior to killing himself, the Florida-based, 22-year-old Abusalha was not on the radar of the FBI or the database at the National Counterterrorism Center.
FBI officials told the Washington Post that the Abusalha case exposed vulnerabilities that can be reduced but not eliminated.
“It is extremely difficult for the FBI to identify individuals in the US who have this kind of goal,” George Piro, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami field office, said to the newspaper. “It requires a loved one or really close friend to note the changes…The family has to intervene.”
Piro is conducting the investigation into Abusalha’s activities, but the case already reveals a weakness in US information collection methods, despite a major push by security and intelligence agencies over the past two years to track the flow of foreign fighters into and out of Syria.
Abusalha first visited Syria in January 2013, then left for Jordan and journeyed on to Mecca. He returned to the US in May 2013 while flying through Newark airport.
“If the FBI was looking for this person and had a case on him, we absolutely would have notified the FBI,” said a US Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) official.
Abusalha’s mother was called by USCBP about her son when he arrived back in the US, and she confirmed he had been visiting relatives in Jordan. She did not share with them whether she knew anything about his visit to Syria.
His travel records showed multiple trips to Jordan dating to 2005, according to a senior Homeland Security official, though there was no entry on him in any FBI or counterterrorism databases. Nothing in his behavior or belongings, meanwhile, betrayed any tie to the Syrian conflict.
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