The news: A U.S. citizen has died fighting in Syria -- for Islamic State.
San Diego's Douglas McAuthur McCain was killed by members of the Free Syrian Army, another, more-moderate rebel group fighting the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad. After IS and FSA clashed, FSA identified McCain's body from his American passport and unique neck tattoo, noting he was carrying around $800 in cash. NBC News confirmed that his family had heard of his death, and that McCain had become highly religious about a decade ago.
Earlier this month, U.S. officials reported that they were aware a "small handful" of Americans may be fighting for IS as well as for other rebel groups combating Assad. McCain's death appears to be a grim confirmation that some American extremists have taken to Syria.
Who was McCain? NBC News describes him as a typical-seeming young man who mostly posted about basketball online until his apparent conversion to radicalism, after which he began tweeting about his extreme sympathies and direct involvement in the Syrian conflict this year. A Swedish man who met him three to four years ago called McCain a "really nice guy" who respected his Christianity. His Twitter bio said "It's Islam over everything," while he went by the name Duale ThaslaveofAllah on Facebook. As far back as mid-2010, McCain began posting pro-ISI (at the time, Islamic State of Iraq) images as his profile pictures.
On a post dated Oct. 22, 2013, he left this update:
Joining the IS ranks: McCain apparently wasn't part of IS for long, arriving in Syria sometime in the early summer. But there are many others like him who have tried or succeeded to fly IS's black flag, including three Americans arrested on suspicion of attempting to join the group. The man thought to have slit American journalist James Foley's throat on camera and posted the video to social media, Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, is a rapper from London. The U.K. estimates about 500 Britons have joined IS. A photograph of a young child triumphantly holding a severed head, which Secretary of State John Kerry called "one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed," came from an Australian man.
The Daily Beast's foreign editor, Christopher Dickey, writes that what all these disaffected young men seem to have in common is that they're "almost as ridiculous as they are horrifying," seeking attention and self-validation as much as ideology. Bary apparently complained about getting carjacked by FSA opponents on Twitter, while two other British fighters allegedly bought Islam for Dummies ahead of their big trip.
Why you should care: Foreign fighters contribute significantly to violence where they pop up, and if they manage to evade detection and return home, they pose a major security threat. (Boston bombing leader Tamerlan Tsarnaev, for example, visited Salafist mosques in Dagestan.) Fighters in illegal wars of all stripes must be brought to justice and prevented from reaching extremist hot spots in the first place. Since they come from all over the place, worldwide collaboration will be necessary to curtail the threat.
What won't help, though, is suspicion or profiling of American Muslims, the vast majority of whom have zero affiliation with extremists. Some security assessments have found that right-wing extremists now pose a bigger threat than Muslim ones.