VERO BEACH, Fla. — There were no U.S. air marshals watching the newly clean-shaven passenger on the transatlantic flight, no FBI agents waiting for him as he landed in Newark in May 2013 after returning from Syria’s civil war.
As the 22-year-old Florida native made his way through a U.S. border inspection, officers pulled him aside for additional screening and searched his belongings. They called his mother in Vero Beach to check on his claim that he had merely been visiting relatives in the Middle East. But when she vouched for him, U.S. officials said, Moner Mohammad Abusalha was waved through without any further scrutiny or perceived need to notify the FBI that he was back in the United States.
Earlier this year, after returning to Syria, Abusalha became the first American to carry out a suicide attack in that country, blowing up a restaurant frequented by Syrian soldiers on behalf of an al-Qaeda affiliate. His death May 25 was accompanied by the release of a menacing video. “You think you are safe where you are in America,” he said, threatening his own country and a half-dozen others. “You are not safe.”
It was a warning from someone who had been in position to deliver on that threat. By then, Abusalha had made two trips to a conflict zone seen as the largest incubator of Islamist radicalism since Afghanistan in the 1980s. Between those visits he wandered inside the United States for more than six months, U.S. officials said, attracting no attention from authorities after their brief telephone conversation with his mother.
His movements went unmonitored despite a major push by U.S. security and intelligence agencies over the past two years to track the flow of foreign fighters into and out of Syria. At the center of that effort is a task force established by the FBI at a classified complex in Virginia that also involves the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center.
Despite that expanding surveillance net and more than a dozen prosecutions in the United States, the outcome for Abusalha depended more on the priorities of his al-Qaeda handlers than U.S. defenses. FBI officials involved in the case said it exposed vulnerabilities that can be reduced but not eliminated.
“It is extremely difficult for the FBI to identify individuals in the U.S. who have this kind of goal,” said George Piro, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami field office, which led the Abusalha investigation. “It requires a loved one or really close friend to note the changes. . . . The family has to intervene.”
Abusalha is counted among the 100 or so Americans who have traveled to Syria or attempted to do so, a figure cited repeatedly by senior U.S. officials in ways that suggest there is precision in their understanding of who and where those people are.
In reality, officials said, the total has risen to 130 or more, and it includes individuals about whom only fragments of information are known. The clearest cases involve U.S. citizens arrested by the FBI before they depart. But other cases are incomplete, based on false names or partial identities assembled from references on social media or U.S. intelligence sources.
Even the estimate of 130 is low, according to U.S. officials who said there are undoubtedly Americans in Syria and Iraq who have not surfaced. Abusalha was part of that invisible category until shortly before he recorded his farewell videos and stepped into the cab of an armored dump truck packed with explosives.
FBI Director James B. Comey recently warned of such blind spots. “Given the nature of the traveler threat, I don’t sit with high confidence that I have complete visibility,” Comey said in a briefing at FBI headquarters. “Who are we missing who went and came back? And, obviously, who are we missing who is in the midst of trying to go?”
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