Douglas McAuthur McCain was a U.S. citizen raised in Minnesota. He also just earned a dubious distinction, as the first American to die in Syria fighting for the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State. For more on McCain, Robert Siegel speaks with Michael Schmidt of The New York Times.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
33-year-old Douglas McAuthur McCain, who grew up in Minnesota, earned a dubious distinction last weekend. McCain died in combat in Syria. He's believed to be the first American to die there fighting for ISIS, the extremist group that now calls itself the Islamic State. It's the group that beheaded photojournalist James Foley. McCain converted to Islam in the United States. Exactly how and when he was recruited into the jihadist cause is unclear. Michael Schmidt wrote about him for the New York Times and joins us in the studio. Welcome. >>SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: What do we know about him?
MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Basically, this is a 33-year-old guy who, on Saturday, was part of a group of ISIS fighters that was taking on the Free Syrian Army - that's the group the United States is backing with money and weapons. And the Free Syrian Army was controlling this town in northern Syria. And Mr. McCain and a few other fighters attacked them. They initially killed some of the soldiers from the Free Syrian Army. The Free Syrian Army responded, killing several ISIS fighters including Mr. McCain. The Free Syrian Army then went on to behead several of the ISIS fighters - not Mr. McCain, though. And then they posted a picture of that on Facebook.
SIEGEL: We should point out - this, in effect, is the civil war within a civil war. Both of these groups oppose the Assad regime.
SCHMIDT: These are two groups that oppose Assad, that are fighting with each other for control of the area that Assad doesn't control.
SIEGEL: And did U.S. officials seem to know about him or the fact that he was in Syria or know when he got there?
SCHMIDT: What I was told yesterday is that the federal law enforcement officials didn't know that he was there, actually, until he got there. There were some postings on social media that may have clued the FBI - which is following this very closely - into this. And they say, look, this is what the problem is. You can't fly from New York to Syria. You know, you can't fly from anywhere in the United States to Syria. You can fly to Istanbul, and then you can just go over the border into Syria. There's no one there to stamp your passport. Do whatever you want in Syria, you know, and there's no way to track it.
SIEGEL: And do we know if there was any online preacher who inspired him to this cause or something he read or saw?
SCHMIDT: No. No. No, we don't know that. But we know that on his Twitter page that he posted a lot of things sympathizing with ISIS, talking about his conversion. So there was a presence there.
SIEGEL: I gather, in his younger days, you write about somebody who had something of a misspent youth but wasn't exactly off the mean streets.
SCHMIDT: Well, he comes from sort of a quiet suburb outside of Indianapolis. He grew up playing basketball - was a big fan of the Chicago Bulls - sort of a typical Midwestern kid. But what happens is that he, apparently, bounces around from different high schools. He loses interest in basketball. He starts doing some drugs. He then, over a 10-year period, from his late-teens on, he gets arrested or cited at least eight times. That raises a lot of questions about what was going on with him during that period of time.
SIEGEL: Analysts have drawn some inferences about ISIS or the Islamic State from the fact that this American - a recruit was evidently doing regular combat duty - attacking a Free Syrian Army group and not - he wasn't being saved up for some special task.
SCHMIDT: Well, what we've seen in the past few weeks as the Obama Administration has started bombing ISIS and there's been more and more talk about ISIS and the beheading video that came out last week is lawmakers and some administration officials saying ISIS is determined to attack the United States. So what some people said is if ISIS is really determined to attack the United States and the best way to attack the United States is to use an American - to send them from Syria back into the United States with a mission, why didn't they do it with this guy? Did ISIS think that he was - their fight is in Syria? We need folks in the battlefield, and that's where we're going to use him? Because the Americans to them are very valuable. They can travel in ways that other foreigners can't.
SIEGEL: Michael Schmidt, national security reporter for the New York Times. Thanks for talking with us.
SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.