Details are emerging about Douglas McAuthor McCain, who last weekend became the first known American to be killed while fighting alongside Islamic militants in Syria.
The otherwise undistinguished 33-year-old was raised in Minnesota and most recently worked as a caregiver in California. Still murky is what compelled him to leave this spring for the Middle East and to pick up arms on behalf of religious extremists.
NBC News broke the story Tuesday, reporting that McCain had made his way from Turkey into territory controlled by the Islamic State group. He took part in an attack over the weekend on a Syrian opposition checkpoint near Aleppo.
The anti-Assad rebels known as the Free Syrian Army retaliated, killing McCain. They beheaded six other Islamic State fighters, but not McCain, and posted photos on Facebook, according to various news accounts. The rebels reportedly found McCain with his U.S. passport and $800 in his pocket.
"We were aware of U.S. citizen Douglas McArthur McCain’s presence in Syria and can confirm his death," White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement Tuesday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki onTuesday said U.S. officials had been in contact with McCain's family following his death.
Douglas McCain was born in Illinois and raised in New Hope, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb, where he attended Robbinsdale Cooper High School. He ran into some trouble with the law, with convictions for theft, drug possession, disorderly conduct and driving after his license had been revoked, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
In recent years, he moved to San Diego, California, as did his mother and a sister. McCain worked for a Somali-operated African Market, now closed, and attended a local community college.
According to McCain's social media accounts, which were taken down Tuesday, he converted from Christianity to the Muslim faith in 2004. "I will never look back the best thing that ever happened to me," he tweeted in May. He identified himself on Facebook as "Duale ThaslaveofAllah" and on Twitter as Duale Khalid, "iamthetooth."
A succession of Twitter posts, accessed and posted by the San Diego Union-Tribune, reflect McCain's changing attitudes and circumstances.
McCain’s cousin, Kenyata McCain, described him as a "humble, caring man" who "lost his identity" after becoming involved with Somali Muslims, but doubts he fought alongside IS militants. "I know that he had strong Muslim beliefs," she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "but I didn't know that he was in support of ISIS [an earlier acronym for the Islamic State]. I didn't think he would be."
Minnesota Public Radio also reported that, from McCain's Facebook page, it appears he knew Abdirahmaan Muhumed, "a Minneapolis man who went to Syria and joined the Islamic State." Muhumed had posted a photo of himself holding a rifle and a Qur'an, eliciting negative responses from Facebook "friends," MPR said. But McCain, in a Feb. 19 post, encouraged Muhumed to "continue protecting our brothers and sisters."
Kenyata McCain said she was in regular contact with her cousin and exchanged messages with him as late as last Friday. "He was telling all of us he was in Turkey," she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
State Department spokeswoman Psaki, at a Tuesday news briefing, was asked how Turkey is monitoring its border and stopping foreign fighters from crossing into Syria.
"Turkey is an important ally of ours and we work closely with them. I’m not going to be assessing anyone’s capabilities from the podium. But, the issue of foreign fighters and the concern of individuals with Western passports or passports that would enable them to travel into countries where they can do harm is certainly at the top of our agenda and the top of the agenda of many countries," she said.
Psaki noted that Obama will preside over a United Nations General Assembly meeting in September that will focus on the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters. It will take place the week of September 22 in New York.
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder said he was concerned fighters from Europe and the United States were supporting violent insurgents in Syria and joining forces with Yemeni bomb makers.
U.S. intelligence agencies estimate around 7,000 of the 23,000 violent extremists operating in Syria’s civil war are foreign fighters, mostly from Europe. Australian intelligence chief David Irvine said Wednesday that 15 Australians are believed to have died fighting in Syria and Iraq, and that about 60 Australians are fighting with jihadist groups like IS.
Jonathan Adelman, associate professor at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Relations, said these foreign fighters, with the training they receive, pose a serious threat to Western nations, including the United States.
"The fact that there are these estimated 100 Americans, there’s an estimated 400 to 500 Brits, there’s several hundred French. There’s about 2,000 Westerners in this (IS) group, plus some non-Westerners who could easily come into the United States and I think this is something that really we have to take very seriously," Adelman said. The threat "isn’t as remote as we thought it was after Osama bin Laden was killed."
Adelman said many of these foreign fighters are being recruited through social media.
"I think for a lot of these kids – and he wasn’t just a kid, he was 33 years old – there's a level of excitement about this," Adelman said. "We’re going to have foreign adventure. We are going to stand up against all the evils of this world. But, it’s frightening. We’re a country of 315 million people. All it’s going to take is a dozen of these people, with the fighting experience they’re getting in Syria and Iraq, and all the training they’re getting, to be able to come in here quite legally, and we’re fairly vulnerable."
Psaki on Tuesday acknowledged that threat and said “we’re tracking” that closely “because we think it could pose a threat to us.”
The renewed concern over foreign fighters came as American journalist Peter Theo Curtis returned to the United States from Israel late Tuesday, just two days after being freed from nearly two years captivity at the hands of the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusrah group in Syria.
In a statement, he said he has been touched and moved by the people who welcomed him home. He also thanks U.S. officials and the Qatari government for intervening on his behalf.
VOA's Carol Guensburg and Mike Eckel contributed to this report.