Minneapolis – — Douglas McAuthur McCain, an American killed in Syria while fighting alongside the Islamic State, was part of a growing number of foreign fighters recruited to fight alongside terror groups.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest confirmed Wednesday that McCain was fighting for ISIS in Syria in a conflict that now includes thousands of foreign fighters from around 50 countries.
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.
McCain was born in the Chicago area and moved to Minnesota as a boy. Court records show he 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.
Those who are lured to the fighting tend to be young men from 18 to 30 who are disenfranchised from society and withdrawn, said Minneapolis FBI spokesman Kyle Loven.
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.”
ISIS 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.”
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,” Loven said.
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