Seeking Clues in Man’s Arc From Life in Florida to Fatal Blast in Syria

June 4, 2014

Friends of Moner Mohammad Abusalha Saw No Indications of Radicalization

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 Abusalha was only a teenager, but the honor would sometimes go to him.

“They would encourage him because he was so enthusiastic,” said Brandon Blanchard, who attended the center and knew Mr. Abusalha for eight years.

Now Mr. Abusalha’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. Mr. Abusalha, 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 Idlib Province that day, in which a total of 37 people died.

Mr. Abusalha 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, Taher Husainy, the leader of the community Islamic center, told TCPalm, a local news site.

Mr. Abusalha’s friends believe that he was recruited after he left Florida. “When he left, that was the furthest thing in his mind,” Mr. 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.”

Veronica Monroy, a friend of Mr. Abusalha’s, said she last heard from him about two years ago. “He deplored any kind of negativity, and was always the first to lend a hand if you needed one. He was religious, but definitely not an extremist,” she said in an email. “He was loving and caring, and I know he came from a strong, loving, supportive home. Nothing hurts more than not being able to have been there for him, to try to stop him, or to at least just say goodbye.”