Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The all-American al Qaeda suicide bomber

By Peter Bergen
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1829 GMT (0229 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha recorded videotape for al Qaeda before suicide bombing
  • Peter Bergen says the 22-year-old's story highlights risks of Western fighters in Syria
  • He says hundreds of Europeans are taking part in the war, and so are some Americans
  • Bergen: Tracking the foreign fighters is a key priority for counterterrorism efforts

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- Seconds before he detonated the massive truck bomb that killed him and a number of Syrian soldiers two months ago, Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha radioed other fighters in al Qaeda to say, "I see paradise and I can smell paradise."

That in itself may not be unusual. But what should focus our attention is the identity of the bomber -- he was an American.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

The son of a Palestinian father and an Italian-American mother, Abu-Salha grew up in Vero Beach, Florida, where he played high school football.

Abu-Salha, who was 22, is the first American suicide bomber known to have died in Syria.

On Monday, an al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria released a half-hour videotape in which Abu-Salha explained his rationale for the impending suicide mission.

The video is an important window into the worldview of a Western recruit to al Qaeda drawn to the Syrian civil war, which is now in its fourth year. And the video also helps illuminate the recruitment techniques that the group has used to draw Westerners to the conflict, estimated to now number around 2,000.

A blindfolded man suspected of passing military information to the Syrian government waits to be interrogated by Free Syrian Army fighters Monday, October 6, in Aleppo, Syria. The United Nations estimates more than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war. A blindfolded man suspected of passing military information to the Syrian government waits to be interrogated by Free Syrian Army fighters Monday, October 6, in Aleppo, Syria. The United Nations estimates more than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war.
Syrian civil war in 2014
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014 Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014

In the video, Abu-Salha is shown tearing up his American passport and then the passport is set on fire. Next he is shown wearing a green camouflage vest and holding an AK-47 rifle delivering a diatribe to the camera directly.

Speaking in a strong American accent, Abu-Salha explicitly appeals to fellow militants in the States and the United Kingdom, saying that coming to fight with al Qaeda was so simple that he arrived in Syria "with only $20 in my pocket." Abu-Salha explained that "Allah made it easy for me" as he traveled from the States to Turkey and from there crossed over into neighboring Syria.

Abu-Salha paints a grim picture of life in the United States compared with the supposed joys of his life as a holy warrior: "Just sitting down five minutes drinking a cup of tea with mujahedeen (holy warriors) is better than anything I've ever experienced in my whole life. I lived in America! I know how it is. You have all the fancy amusement parks, and the restaurants, and the food, and all this crap and the cars and you think you're happy. You're not happy, you're never happy. I was never happy. I was always sad and depressed. Life sucked. ... All you do is work 40, 50, 60 hours a week."

Over footage of a woman in an all-enveloping black burqa who is shooting an automatic rifle, Abu-Salha tells the story of a Russian woman working for al Qaeda who conducted a suicide operation in Pakistan. Abu-Salha says, "She's a thousand men. Not like you men who sit at home." In other words, you are not a real Muslim man if you don't travel to come join the jihad.

Abu-Salha also paints a vision of what life in paradise will be for those who are killed fighting in Syria. In paradise, he says, "A tree will pick the fruit off of itself and hand it to you," while you will find a woman so beautiful that "you would die from her beauty."

Abu-Salha's videotape establishes some key recruiting themes for Westerners whom al Qaeda wants to draw into the Syrian war: That it is purportedly easy to come and fight in Syria; that life in the West is nothing compared with life you will lead as a holy warrior; that real men do jihad; and if you do end up getting "martyred" in the war, "paradise" will welcome you with beautiful women.

Toward the end of the tape, Abu-Salha contemplates his own impending suicidal attack and death. Fighting back tears, Abu-Salha addresses his family back in the Florida, saying, "I love you Mom." He also addresses his oldest brother: "I love you bro. ... Look after our sister and our little brother."

At the end of the tape, a truck that is decorated with the distinctive al Qaeda black flag with white writing is driven off, and then in the distance there is a massive explosion.

Abu-Salha is one of about 100 Americans who have traveled to Syria or have tried to do so as the civil war there grinds on. Not all of these U.S. citizens have joined al Qaeda or its splinter groups, but a number have done so. The New York Times reported Thursday that Abu-Salha had returned to the States for several months after he had received militant training in Syria and before he returned there to conduct his final mission.

So far nine Americans have been charged with traveling, attempting to travel or facilitating the travel of others to fight in Syria with militant jihadist groups, according to a count by the New America Foundation.

The most recent case was that of Michael Todd Wolfe, 23, who pleaded guilty to attempting to join an al Qaeda splinter group in Syria. Wolfe was arrested June 17 as he tried to fly out of George Bush International Airport in Houston.

Syria is attracting a lot more Westerners than the Iraq War ever did because it's the perfect Sunni jihad. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad belongs to the small Alawite sect and is therefore considered a heretic by many Sunnis; al-Assad runs a secular regime, and therefore he is considered by Sunni militants to be an apostate, and he is inflicting a total war on his Sunni population.

As a result, there are many hundreds of "foreign fighters" who have traveled to Syria from European "visa waiver" countries who do not need visas to travel to the United States, including 700 from France, 450 from the United Kingdom, 270 from Germany and dozens from each of the Scandinavian countries.

U.S. officials assert that jihadist groups in Syria are already shifting their focus to conducting attacks on the United States and Europe. Speaking at a security conference last week in Aspen, Colorado, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said some Syrian jihadists "are actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission."

The problem in Syria is compounded by the fact that, according to both British counterterrorism officials and U.S. intelligence officials, senior al Qaeda members based in Pakistan have traveled to Syria to direct operations there. They are known as the Khorasan group. Khorasan is an ancient term for an Islamic empire that once incorporated what is now Afghanistan.

What can be done? Western governments are keenly aware of the problem of Syrian veterans coming home both radicalized and trained. The problem is that in some European countries with hundreds of returnees it is just not possible to monitor all of them. That was vividly illustrated by the case of Mehdi Nemmouche, who traveled to Syria last year and is accused in the May 24 shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, that left four people dead.

Information sharing between Western governments about the identities of those who have traveled to Syria and have received militant training is the key to preventing more incidents such as the one at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT