U.S. intelligence officials confirmed Tuesday that an American who died in Syria was likely fighting for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, increasing Americans’ concerns about the thousands of foreign fighters in the Middle East.
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, reportedly died this weekend in a vicious Syrian firefight between groups seeking to wrench power from President Bashar al-Assad. McCain grew up outside Minneapolis and most recently lived in San Diego.
Family and friends described him as a typical, goofy boy who liked to play basketball growing up. A Twitter account widely attributed to McCain features LOL’s, references to his “homies,” and other slang from the self-described, would-be rapper. But radical, pro-ISIS speech began to appear on the account in May, after more than a year of silence.
On Twitter, McCain said he converted to Islam about 10 years ago. “It’s funny to me how all these so call Muslim [sic] claim that they love Allah but always curse the one [sic] who try to implement his laws,” a June 8 tweet reads.
Kenyata McCain, his cousin, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the family knew he had strong Muslim beliefs, but he told them Friday he was in Turkey. She claimed the family did not know he supported ISIS.
Isaac Chase, a childhood friend who hadn’t seen McCain since 2008, fought back tears as his mother, Shelly, spoke to the Associated Press. McCain told Isaac, who joined the military in 2007, that he was proud of him and he was trying to straighten out his own life, Chase recalled.
“This is hard. He was a good kid,” Shelly Chase said. “Someone must have persuaded him.”
McCain was found with $800 dollars and an American passport, according to NBC. His death sheds light on the growing number of Western Muslims seeking to join the terrorist cause.
FBI Director James Comey said in June at the agency’s Minneapolis field office that roughly 100 Americans have joined the conflict in Syria. Minneapolis has seen a slew of Somali-Americans joining terrorists in Somalia in recent years. But today’s terrorism threat has “metastasized,” Comey said, so that no common demographics or regions seem to link the suspected American militants traveling abroad.
NPR reports that when including Iraq, the number of American fighters has more than doubled since the start of the year, to at least 140. And with dozens of groups fighting in Syria alone, it’s difficult to determine motives or allegiances. The United States has supported some rebel groups seeking to overthrow Assad, but intelligence officials say the growing and murky influence of jihadists is a concern. Fighters could become radicalized and use Western passports to return home and spread ideologies or organize attacks.
Before McCain, such concerns seemed more relevant to Europe. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said last week that up to 800 British Muslims are fighting for ISIS in the Middle East—more than in the British military. France banned pro-Gaza demonstrations last month after they turned violent, attacking synagogues. Concern in the United States has prompted the FBI to begin arresting people with connections to the Islamic State before they were able to leave for Syria.
President Barack Obama has ordered drone surveillance over Syrian airspace, perhaps leading to air strikes against the terrorist organization officials say poses an increasing threat to the West. A new report released Wednesday by a United Nations commission cites 480 documents and interviews describing public intimidation executions by the Islamic State in Syria. The complex Syrian civil war has killed more than 190,000 during the last three years and displaced millions.