Orlando jihadist Omar Mateen attended the same mosque, and prayed alongside, Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha. Abu-Salha was the first American suicide bomber in Syria.
Another attendee from the small mosque, which is housed in a former church building, was recently in the news: Moner Mohammad Abu Salha, who occasionally worshiped there, served as a suicide bomber for the Nusra Front – an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria – by driving a truck bomb into a building housing Syrian government troops in May 2014.
FBI Investigators say that Abu Salha tried to recruit other young men here in Florida before his final journey to the Middle East; that attempt is linked to Mateen’s questioning by authorities in 2013 and 2014. The FBI failed to find any definitive link between the men and so closed their investigation of Mateen. But in Mateen’s series of phone calls to the Orlando police after he’d begun shooting up the Pulse nightclub at 2 a.m. Sunday, he paid homage to Abu Salha – as well as announcing his fealty to the leader of the self-declared Islamic State, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.
At the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, a mosque he attended for nearly a decade, Mateen occasionally prayed with Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, a 22-year-old Palestinian-American who in 2014 became the first American suicide bomber in Syria, although they “did not interact with each other,” said Adel Nefzi, a mosque board member.
In 2014, when Mateen was investigated and interviewed for a second time in two years by U.S. authorities, it was because of suspected connections to Abu-Salha. That was not enough to “constitute a substantive threat” at that time, U.S. authorities said on Sunday.
The two also attended the same school, Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, the southeast Florida city where Mateen also lived. Mateen graduated in 2006 with a degree in criminal justice, while Abu-Salha was enrolled in the fall 2010 and spring 2011, according to school officials.
Palm Beach Post via Atlanta Journal Constitution:
Orlando shooter Omar Mateen and Moner Mohammad Abu Salha, who two years ago became the first American suicide bomber in Syria, were allegedly seen having a private conversation at a party several years ago, the Palm Beach Post reported someone who attended the gathering as saying.
It is the closest connection reported recently between the Abu Salha and Mateen, who the FBI investigated in 2014 after officials say Abu Salha drove a truck full of explosives into a Syrian restaurant full of government soldiers.
The FBI, in its second investigation of Omar Mateen, found no substantial connection between the two outside of having attended the same mosque years ago, but a party guest at the home of Abu Salha’s older brother told The Palm Beach Post that she saw the two together and on at least one occasion watched them have what appeared to be a serious one-on-one conversation.
The party guest, a former high school classmate of Mateen’s who asked that her name not be used, said she attended two parties at the home of Abu Salha’s brother — one in 2011 and another the next year.
She couldn’t remember Wednesday which of the two parties she attended where she saw the private conversation, but was one of about a dozen guests at Abu Salha’s brother’s home on both occasions.
“They were over in a corner, just the two of them,” she said. “It looked like a serious conversation, but I couldn’t hear it so I can’t say what it was about.”
The guest said that at both parties, she got into debates with the men and other guests about religion. Mateen and the Abu Salha brothers advocated Islam, but she and at least two other guests were Christians.
During the second party, which was sometime in 2012, she remembers the debate becoming especially heated.
“I remember one of them — I can’t remember which one — told me that I was being disrespectful,” she said. “I remember I just laughed.”
Still, she said, although the debated was spirited, neither of the men were rude. She described their views as “extreme,” but added that she only viewed them as such in contrast with her Christian beliefs.
The guest said the men invited her to visit their mosque, but she never did.