Moner Abu-Salha: Before Becoming a Jihadi Suicide Bomber, He Was a South Florida Bro
A middle school yearbook photo of Abu-Salha (left) and a Facebook profile picture uploaded in 2012.
Photos via Casey Hamilton and Moner Abu-Salha's Facebook page
If you had stumbled across Moner Abu-Salha's Facebook profile a year ago, you would have found a recently updated page fitting for any suburban South Florida bro. On June 24, he updated his profile pic to a selfie flexing his biceps in the bathroom mirror and his cover photo to a Miami Heat logo. He listened to Jay Z and Mac Miller and watched Family Guy and Man vs. Food.
Today, his family and U.S. intelligence agencies are wrestling with how the same guy became radicalized so quickly that less than 12 months later, he blew up a suicide truck bomb in Syria, becoming the first known American jihadi killed in that conflict.
Here's what we know about the South Florida jihadi so far.
Moner Abu-Salha's profile page
via Moner Abu-Salha's Facebook
He really liked basketball.
Few of Abu-Salha's neighbors recall speaking with him much in the suburban Vero Beach development where he grew up, but everyone seems to remember how much he loved playing hoops.
"He'd play basketball with any hoop anywhere he could find one," neighbor Mark Hill tells the New York Times. "He was out there playing all the time."
When he was in eighth or ninth grade, he earned a place on a traveling team called the Indian River Warriors, where teammates tell the Times he wasn't the best player but brought enthusiasm to the court. And he was evidently a big enough Heat fan to plaster his Facebook page with the team logo shortly after Miami won a second consecutive championship last year.
Abu-Salha in middle school.
via Casey Hamilton
His childhood was painfully normal.
By all accounts, Abu-Salha's childhood was about as normal and suburban as it gets. His father, Mohammad Abu-Salah, owns a grocery store in Melbourne. (It's not clear where he's from originally; the Times reports that he's Palestinian, but the Daily Mail says he came from Jordan.) His mother, Michelle, is an American who converted to Islam, the Mail reports. And the family spent Moner's childhood in a quiet gated community called the Lakes at Sandridge just north of Vero Beach.
Moner was by all accounts a typical neighborhood kid, shooting hoops and causing minor trouble. "They were doing the same things my kids do,'' neighbor Rob Hill tells the Miami Herald of Moner and his friends. "Throwing rocks."
If he was particularly into politics or religion, it didn't show to his classmates. "Mo was all about going to Dunkin' Donuts," a friend from high school tells the Daily Mail.
A photo tweeted by an Islamic group in Syria allegedly shows Abu-Salha before detonating a truck bomb.
He might have been radicalized on a trip to Jordan in 2012.
Moner dropped out of Sebastian River High School in 2010 before graduating, the Daily Mail reports, but later received a degree in Fort Pierce, where he lived with an older brother. He attended Seminole State College for a time, but again quit studying and, in 2012, moved in with relatives in Jordan, according to the Mail.
When he returned, a friend tells the British paper, he was significantly more religiously observant, wearing long robes and regularly reading the Koran and singing prayers. At some point in 2013, he again traveled to the Middle East and his family lost contact with him until they learned about his death in a suicide bombing last week in Syria.
One unnamed relative tells the Arab Daily News that they believe Moner was "brainwashed" and might have spent time at a camp in Texas before traveling to the war-torn nation. His parents, who so far have declined to give interviews, have cooperated with federal officials and are distraught and baffled, neighbors say, over their son's fate.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.