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.