WASHINGTON — A United States citizen working in Syria with a militant group backed by Al Qaeda conducted a suicide bombing there Sunday, in what is believed to be the first time an American has been involved in such an attack, American officials said Wednesday.
The suicide attack first surfaced on Tuesday in Twitter messages from the Nusra Front, an Islamist extremist group in Syria aligned with Al Qaeda in the fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because intelligence matters were involved, declined to identify the American or provide any information about him. NBC News first reported that American government officials had confirmed the bomber was an American.
Syrian activists and jihadist social media sites reported that the American went by the name Abu Huraira al-Amriki and carried out the suicide truck bombing in the northern province of Idlib.
A photo circulated on jihadist social media accounts showed a smiling young man who was said to be the bomber. He had a blond beard and was holding a cat to his chest.
Activists also circulated a video that was said to record the attack. It first showed rebels loading what appear to be tank shells into a large vehicle that had been armored with metal plates. In the video, there is a large explosion after the vehicle drives down a road.
An antigovernment activist reached through Skype near the bombing site confirmed the attack and said he had seen the American before the bombing but had not spoken to him and did not know where he was from.
“I know he was an American, had an American passport and that he was with the Nusra Front,” said the activist, who gave only his first name, Ahmed, for fear of retribution.
Islamic extremist groups in Syria with ties to Al Qaeda have been trying to identify, recruit and train Americans and other Westerners who have traveled there to get them to carry out attacks when they return home, according to senior American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
These efforts, which the officials say are in the early stages, are the latest challenge that the conflict in Syria has created, not just for Europe but for the United States. The civil war has become a magnet for Westerners seeking to fight with the rebels against the Assad government.
American intelligence and counterterrorism officials say more than 70 Americans have traveled to Syria, mainly to fight for one of the hundreds of rebel groups combating the Assad government. The F.B.I., C.I.A., National Counterterrorism Center and Homeland Security Department recently created a special team of analysts to try to prevent the American jihadists from returning home undetected.
American officials say their concerns about the recruitment and training of Americans are based on intelligence gathered from passenger travel records, human sources on the ground in Syria, intercepted electronic communications, social media postings and surveillance of Americans overseas who have expressed interest in traveling to Syria.
“The recent flood of militants into the country poses a serious challenge, as these individuals could be trained to plan and carry out attacks around the world,” Mark F. Giuliano, the deputy F.B.I. director, said in prepared remarks in Washington on Wednesday.
An American suicide bomber in Syria is a “potential game changer,” said Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation.
“It indicates that Americans are honing their ability to conduct terrorist attacks,” Mr. Jones said, and could eventually be used inside the United States or against American interests abroad.
Most of the Americans who have traveled to Syria are still there, American officials said, although a few have died on the battlefield. Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, of Flint, Mich., a convert to Islam, was killed in May 2013 while with Syrian rebels in Idlib Province.
Last year, another American, Eric G. Harroun, a former Army soldier from Phoenix, was indicted in Virginia by a federal grand jury on charges related to allegations that he had fought alongside members of the Nusra Front. In September, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge involving conspiracy to transfer defense articles and services, and was released from custody. Mr. Harroun’s family posted a notice on his Facebook page last month saying that he had died, apparently from an accidental overdose.
Other American citizens or residents have been detained before they arrived in Syria. Basit Javed Sheikh, 29, of Cary, N.C., was arrested in November 2013 for trying to provide material support to the Nusra Front as he was trying to board a series of flights to join the group, American authorities said.
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(via NY Times)