MINNEAPOLIS – Douglas McAuthur McCain, an American killed in Syria while fighting with the Islamic State, was part of a growing number of Americans and other foreigners recruited by terror groups to help them wage war in the Mideast.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest confirmed Wednesday that McCain was fighting for ISIL in Syria in a conflict that now includes thousands of combatants from about 50 countries.
WHO ARE THESE TRAVELERS?
FBI Director James Comey said in June that roughly 100 people had left the United States to join the conflict in Syria. His estimate came during a visit to Minnesota, where several young Somali-Americans had lived before travelling to Somalia in recent years to help expel Ethiopian troops seen as invaders. But Comey said the new wave of travelers to Syria was not coming from any particular part of the United States.
In May, for example, a Florida man named Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha was identified as carrying out a suicide truck bombing against Syrian government troops in the city of Idlib.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT McCAIN?
He was born in the Chicago area and moved to Minnesota as a boy. Court records show McCain had some minor traffic offenses in Minnesota, including two instances in which he was convicted of giving police a false name or ID. An old friend, Isaac Chase, said McCain did not really know what he wanted to do with his life. He attended two high schools in Minnesota, but school records don’t show he graduated.
“I don’t know if he was just lost or what,” Chase said.
HOW DO THE FIGHTERS GET TO SYRIA?
One thing that makes Syria such a problem is that it’s so easy to get to, said Evan Kohlmann, who tracks terrorists and terror activity as chief information officer at Flashpoint Global Partners. Turkey gets direct flights from the United States and Europe. From there, it’s a short drive or taxi ride to the porous Syrian border, he said. That’s different from hopeful jihadis trying to get to much harder-to-reach Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, he said.
Once in Syria, they may start with minor groups, but quickly seek to join the al-Qaida-linked insurgency al-Nusra Front or ISIS.
WHAT ARE AMERICAN AUTHORITIES DOING TO STOP THEM?
The U.S. is using “every tool we possess to disrupt and dissuade individuals from traveling abroad for violent jihad and to track and engage those who return,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
The no-fly list is one of those tools, but it’s far from perfect.
“If someone is determined to travel overseas, it’s a challenge for law enforcement to prevent that travel,” said Minneapolis FBI spokesman Kyle Loven.
Minnesota authorities are trying to prevent radicalization by reaching out to local communities, building trust and working to identify young people at risk of recruitment. It’s work they began years ago when the recruitment of Americans to Somalia first cropped up.
“Ultimately, this problem is not going to be solved just by law enforcement, but by law enforcement working in concert with various community groups,” Loven said.
The concern has grown more acute with the beheading of American journalist James Foley by a militant dressed in black with a British accent. The Islamic State, now regarded by Western authorities as the most brutal among jihadi organizations, claimed responsibility last week by posting a video of the slaying on the Internet.
WHAT ARE OTHER GOVERNMENTS DOING?
France is planning a law that would allow confiscation of passports for citizens suspected of planning to fight in Syria or Iraq, and allow prosecution of people who attempt to join the fighting or who are returning from it. Britain, with an estimated 400 to 500 citizens having fought in Syria, has emphasized outreach aimed at stopping radicalization. So has Germany.
WHAT MOTIVATES THE TRAVELERS?
Those who are lured to the fighting tend to be young men from 18 to 30 who are disenfranchised from society and withdrawn, Loven said. They can include people who have been born into the Muslim faith and converts to Islam. McCain’s Twitter feed included a May 14 post that said he “reverted to Islam 10 years ago” and called it the best thing to happen to him.
Colin Clarke, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation who researches global security, said the travelers also sometimes include people who have sketchy backgrounds or have been in trouble with the law.
“These are individuals that are seeking a sense of belonging. They are seeking a higher purpose,” Clarke said. “They believe that by traveling to fight with a group like ISIS they will be able to achieve martyrdom.”
WHAT MAKES ISIL ATTRACTIVE TO THEM?
ISIL appeals to jihadists around the globe because it’s seen as a successful movement, and unlike al-Qaida, it is operating above-ground, said Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas.
Kohlmann said the fighters are sympathetic to the forces opposing the Assad regime, and have embraced the anti-American message.
“They want to become Batman,” he said. “I hate stay it like that, but they have this illusion they’re going to become a superhero – defend the rights of the innocent and oppressed. It sounds really good.”