By Emily Deng
While the average person only sees the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the news from the comfort and protection of their own national boundaries, a surprising number of foreigners are becoming more involved in the crossfire. This includes former San Diego resident Douglas McAuthur McCain.
After a bloody battle between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ISIS, the victorious FSA looted the bodies of downed ISIS fighters, unexpectedly finding $800 and an American passport in a fighter’s pocket. Identified by his distinguishable neck tattoo, White House officials confirmed the death of Douglas McAuthur McCain on August 26, 2014, a few days after the battle. McCain is the first American to die fighting for ISIS. The 33-year-old’s last place of residence was San Diego, California.
According to his Twitter feed, McCain converted to Islam ten years ago and adopted the name Duale Khalid. McCain’s tweets hinted at his increasing involvement with ISIS, which prompted surveillance from U.S. anti-terrorist investigators. On June 9, he wrote to an alleged ISIS member, “I will be joining you guys soon,” followed by a tweet the next day, “I’m with the brothers now.” A couple weeks later, he re-tweeted “It takes a warrior to understand a warrior. Pray for ISIS.” His twitter account @iamthetooth has since been taken down.
McCain’s criminal record, beginning in 2000, was spotted with nine arrests for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct and obstruction charges, but he first came to the attention of the federal government when he began associating with suspected jihadists in Minnesota. U.S. counterterrorism investigators began following McCain and believed he had joined a militant group before his death confirmed his involvement.
McCain was born in Chicago and moved to the suburbs in Minnesota where he was part of the 10 percent of African-American students at his high school. Many of his high school friends described him as a “joker” who loved basketball and PizzaHut.
He soon moved to San Diego, California where school officials confirm that he attended San Diego City College. He was an employee at the now-closed restaurant African Spice in City Heights and worshipped at Masjid Nur, the center of the black, Muslim community.
The State Department notified McCain’s family of his death the Monday following the battle. CNN interviews with McCain’s family expressed shock and confusion over McCain’s death. Their last correspondence was a week earlier through Facebook when McCain indicated he was in Turkey. His cousin Kenyata McCain claimed, “That’s not who he was. For him to be in Syria fighting for a terrorist group, that doesn’t make sense.”
In an interview with UT San Diego, an acquaintance from a shop near African Spice described McCain, “He wasn’t even very religious. He was just another American kid.” Mohamed Ali, who attended the same mosque with McCain in City Heights said, “This is just a big surprise to everybody.” Friends and family did not expect this and still do not understand how McCain got involved with ISIS.
While McCain’s family defends his upbringing as an “average American,” many Twitter responses and article comments express public outrage, calling McCain a traitor and “not a real American.” The aggressive response to McCain’s death demonstrates how many Americans continue to fear terrorist threats and are hypersensitive to individuals that deviate from their patriotic American ideal.
Amid public anger, the terrorist threat of ISIS has become a greater U.S. security concern with the beheading of American reporter James Foley. Obama has responded by expanding the air campaign against ISIS into Syria.
As an American who joined ISIS by choice rather than by captivity, McCain’s journey brings up the question – what is the significance of foreign fighters in ISIS? McCain’s death shows a shift in how ISIS and militant groups are utilizing foreign fighters. According to Richard Barrett of the security consultant Soufan Group, rather than train Americans for terrorist attacks in the United States or for propaganda purposes, ISIS now enlists them to fight in combat.
ISIS has become known for recruiting foreign fighters through social media. According to NBC News, authorities estimate 70 to 100 Americans fighting for ISIS. Americans from many backgrounds and ethnicities choose to join extremists groups abroad, making it difficult for officials to predict who is fighting for ISIS. Like McCain, most foreigners have no connection to Syria when they join; as examples, the New York Times lists half-Palestinian Moner Mohammad Abusalha from Florida who died in a suicide bomb attack and Nicole Lynn Mansfield who died with Syrian rebels.
As the first American to die fighting for ISIS, McCain’s story rippled through the country during the following week, but did not seem to make major headlines. His story was largely ignored and unknown.
However, McCain’s story shifts our understanding of ISIS as a far-away threat to one close to home in San Diego. We can no longer ignore the enormous influence of ISIS as a terrorist group solely in Syria, but as one of an increasingly international presence.
Beyond the week after his death, McCain’s story was lost in the black hole of internet news reporting, but I believe McCain provides evidence of the world’s rapid globalization and the influence of massive social movements across boundaries.
McCain’s death resonates with San Diegans and, to a larger extent, all Americans, as the news incites the fear that even an “average American” like McCain could join these far-away extremist groups. I am not recommending that we all live in fear that our neighbor will join the next extremist group, but the affairs of the greater international world should be no longer contained to what perceptions we see in the media. We have a responsibility to maintain a greater awareness of world affairs beyond our borders, as these issues are becoming increasingly globalized, transcending historical boundaries of race, religion and national identity.
Image by Kodak Agfa