Death of American fighting for Islamic State in Syria: A threat to the US?

Midwesterner Douglas McCain was killed over the weekend. His radicalization fits a pattern of foreigners who fight for militant groups.

Courtesy of Hennepin County Sheriff/Reuters
American Douglas McCain is pictured in this undated photo. McCain, suspected of fighting alongside Islamic State militants who have seized large areas of Iraq and Syria, has been killed in Syria, a US official said August 26.

The death of an American fighting in Syria for the self-declared Islamic State is heightening concerns about the radicalization of US citizens. But some experts say that this case may indicate just the opposite: that the militant group has no immediate interest in US targets.

Douglas McAuthur McCain of San Diego was killed over the weekend in a battle between rival Syrian rebel groups, reports NBC News. Free Syrian Army sources told NBC that Mr. McCain was fighting alongside IS forces (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS), and was identified through both his passport, which he had been carrying, and distinctive tattoos.

Members of McCain's family in Minneapolis, where he grew up, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that US officials informed McCain's mother of his death on Monday. Kenyata McCain, a first cousin, said the family is upset and confused over his death and apparent ties to the terrorist group.

Kenyata McCain said she was in touch with Douglas McCain on Friday, and “he was telling all of us he was in Turkey.”

She noted that his Facebook page indicated that he supported the terrorist group, also known as ISIS.

“I know that he had strong Muslim beliefs,” she added, “but I didn’t know that he was in support of ISIS. I didn’t think he would be.”

According to a post on McCain's Twitter account, he converted to Islam about 10 years ago, which he described as "the best thing that ever happen to me." The Washington Post writes that McCain's radicalization fits the pattern shown by other Westerners who became jihadi fighters, according to Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence officer now working for the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm.

Though every Western foreign fighter leaves for Syria for different reasons, McCain’s early life carries themes found among other foreign militants. They often operate somewhere on the fringes of society and feel excluded, wrote expert Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group. “The French authorities categorize volunteers from France as disaffected, aimless and lacking a sense of identity or belonging,” Barrett wrote in his report. “This appears to be common across most nationalities and fits with the high number of converts, presumably people who are seeking a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.”

Mr. Barrett also told the Star-Tribune that McCain's death does not indicate an immediate threat to the US. He notes that McCain's use as a foot soldier by IS indicates that the group placed no particular value in his American identity, which could be useful for propaganda or for attacking US targets. It "is further evidence that Americans are going there to fight for ISIS rather than to train as terrorists to attack at home," he said.

James Gelvin, a professor of Middle East history at the University of California-Los Angeles, told NBC News that the major appeal of IS for disaffected foreigners is that "they've been successful" in Syria and Iraq. "They have been able to take territory. Al Qaeda doesn't take territory," he said.

But that very success could eventually drive away Americans and other foreigners, because once ISIS takes control in a region, it cracks down with a severe interpretation of Islam that quickly makes its leaders unpopular. "Once you get to know them, you get to hate them," [Mr.] Gelvin said. While the threat of terrorist-trained Americans' returning home is a serious concern — "of course it is," he said — it's more likely that any Americans who survive their battles in Iraq and Syria will return home discouraged and disillusioned, not dangerous.

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