WASHINGTON — A U.S. 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, U.S. officials said today.
The suicide attack first surfaced 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 Assad of Syria.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because intelligence matters were involved, declined to identify the American or provide any information about him. NBC News first reported that U.S. 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 anti-government 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 U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say more than 70 Americans have traveled to Syria, mainly to fight for one of the hundreds of rebels groups combating the Assad government. The FBI, CIA, National Counterterrorism Center and Homeland Security Department recently created a special team of analysts to try to prevent the U.S. jihadists from returning home undetected.