A former Minnesotan who attended Robbinsdale’s Armstrong and Cooper high schools was killed in Syria last weekend, the first American to die fighting for the terror group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIL).
Douglas McAuthur McCain’s death is one of the first clues that U.S. officials have as they try to identify the Americans who have joined a group that has vowed to remake the Middle East. And his death is evidence that ISIL is willing to use Americans on the battlefield.
Born in Chicago, McCain moved to the Twin Cities and attended high schools in Robbinsdale in the late 1990s, according to school officials.
He has lived in San Diego in recent years, according to cousins still in the Twin Cities.
Kenyata McCain and another first cousin said Tuesday that McCain’s mother received a call Monday from the State Department reporting that her 33-year-old son was dead.
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.”
The fight in which McCain was killed occurred in the northern city of Marea, where ISIL and the rebels had been fighting, according to members of the Free Syrian Army.
McCain, a Tunisian and an Egyptian sneaked up on a group of Free Syrian Army rebels, killing two of them. The other militants responded, killing McCain and dozens of ISIL fighters. When the rebels went through McCain’s clothes, they found his U.S. passport and several hundred dollars.
“His death is further evidence that Americans are going there to fight for ISIS rather than to train as terrorists to attack at home,” said Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence office who is now a vice president at the Soufan Group, a security consultancy in New York.
“Nor does it appear that ISIS regards Americans as assets that are too valuable to risk on the front line rather than to keep in reserve for terrorist attacks or propaganda purposes,” he said.
ISIL has become a top national security preoccupations of the Obama administration. And the news of McCain’s death comes amid public anger over the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley.
U.S. authorities learned that McCain had traveled to Syria only after he arrived there, according to senior U.S. officials. In response, he was added to a watch list of potential terrorism suspects maintained by the federal government. Had McCain tried to re-enter the United States, he would have almost certainly faced extra scrutiny before boarding any commercial airliner, the officials said.
It is not clear how McCain was recruited by Islamic State and traveled to Syria. According to his Facebook page, he traveled to Canada and Sweden last year. Many Americans and Europeans have attempted to disguise their travel by passing through other countries before heading to Turkey and crossing its porous border with Syria.
The Obama administration released a statement Tuesday confirming McCain’s death. “We continue to use every tool we possess to disrupt and dissuade individuals from traveling abroad for violent jihad and to track and engage those who return,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
U.S. officials said Tuesday that McCain’s case highlighted the difficulty of identifying Americans who want to travel to Syria to fight alongside rebels. When the United States faced a similar problem with Somalis leaving Minneapolis and other cities to fight in their homeland several years ago, it was far easier for the authorities to identify those who wanted to travel there to fight because that conflict attracted mostly Somalis.
The Syrian conflict has attracted people from all different age groups and parts of the United States, including, apparently, McCain.
A cousin who asked that his name be withheld said: “I don’t know what he went over there for, I don’t want people to get the idea that he was some kind of monster.”
He said McCain had been working in the San Diego area as a caregiver to clients with special needs and raising a daughter, who is nearing her first birthday. He described his cousin as “a Muslim, but he’s not a radical. People get the words mixed up.”
Facebook was also how this cousin last communicated with Douglas McCain, whose last Minnesota address was an apartment in New Hope. “His last couple of posts, you know,” showed sympathy for ISIL. “Where are you?” the cousin asked McCain. “I just had a funny feeling.”
McCain also had lived in a house on Golden Valley Road that was home to Troy Kastigar, another Minnesota convert to Islam who died while fighting for the Al-Shabab terror group in Somalia in 2009. Kastigar attended Cooper High at the same time as McCain.
Kastigar’s mother, Julie, who owned the house, couldn’t be reached Tuesday night.
A sister of Douglas McCain’s, Delecia, eulogized her brother on Facebook, writing, “I really don’t understand why and how and I have no words, I never thought this will be the way we say goodbye. … This is absolutely unreal to me. I love you big brother.”
McCain had a few scrapes with the law while in Minnesota, according to court records. He has convictions for a minor drug possession crime, theft, disorderly conduct and driving after his license was revoked.
Star Tribune staff writer Paul Walsh and the New York Times produced this report.