National Security

Did Suicide Bomber Catch The 'Virus Of Jihadism' In Florida?

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A U.S. citizen who blew himself up in a suicide attack in Syria last week grew up in Florida, according to U.S. officials. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to former FBI Intelligence adviser Philip Mudd.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. U.S. officials are looking for more details about the life and motivations of a young American man who carried out a suicide bombing in Syria one week ago.

On Friday, the State Department identified the man as Moner Mohammad Abusalha. He's reportedly of Middle Eastern descent and grew up in Florida. Abusalha is believed to have traveled to Syria more than once. News of the American's involvement in the suicide bombing surfaced this past week when an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria called the Al-Nusra Front posted video of the attack.

With us now is Philip Mudd. He's a former Middle East analyst at the CIA and the former deputy director of the FBI's national security branch. He joins us from the studios of WKNO in Memphis, Tennessee. This man, Philip, said to be 22-years-old was apparently identified in this jihadist video as quote "the American." Did U.S. officials know of him before last week?

PHILIP MUDD: I suspect they did. The problem is not whether they know of individuals like this after they get to countries like Syria. The problem is how you set up programs in a civil society - in a democratic society to find people before they go because certainly - and I saw these situations at the FBI when I was on loan there from the CIA - the questions that families are going to have are how can you help us ensure that our children won't go? It's not about whether you indentify them after they get there.

MARTIN: Can you speak generally about how a young man from Florida ends up as a suicide bomber in the Civil War in Syria?

MUDD: Sure. There's a couple characteristics you need to think about. Typically, you're talking about youth - let's say 17-years-old going up to 22, 25. I've seen them in their mid-30's. Usually there's somebody involved in radicalizing the individual. This concept of Internet radicalization, to me, is misleading. There's a human being who most likely led this person down this path.

And finally, once a person gets into Syria, he lives in a closed society where people glorify the act he took - that is taking his own life. And you can't begin to understand how powerful that psychological influence is on a young man when he's told that the definition of success for the circle you live in is killing yourself.

MARTIN: How many foreign fighters are in Syria at this point? What are the estimations?

MUDD: I've seen estimates all over the map. You're talking about Americans - estimates ranging from 70 to 100 and up. You're talking about Western Europeans. I would guess there's hundreds of Western Europeans from places like France, the U.K. in Syria. But the real measure is how many will come home? And I think a few will.

MARTIN: How do the FBI, how did the CIA change their calculation when thinking about Syria now that an American has been involved in a suicide attack like this? Does it change the calculus?

MUDD: It does not. And the reason is if you're looking at the Al Qaeda revolution, you see a series of jihadi movements in places like Kashmir, Chechnya - in places like Somalia, Yemen, obviously where we started - Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each of those has been a magnet for Western citizens, especially young men who get the virus of jihad and want to go to someplace to train and where they believe that they'll find religious purity.

The uniqueness of Syria and why this isn't a unique case is it's been going on for a long time. It's relatively easy to get there. It's seen as a place where foreign fighters are welcome. So I think Syria is the biggest problem. I've heard people talk about Yemen. I do not agree. Syria is the biggest problem today for Western securities services worried about radical Islam.

MARTIN: Philip Mudd is a former Middle East analyst at the CIA and the former deputy director of the FBI's national security branch. He joined us from the studios of WKNO in Memphis, Tennessee. Mr. Mudd, thank you so much.

MUDD: Thank you.

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