Q-and-A on Westerners who join the fight in Syria
By AMY FORLITI
the associated press | August 28,2014
Smoke rises near a U.N. post in the Quneitra province as Syrian rebels clash with President Bashar Assad’s forces, as seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Wednesday.
MINNEAPOLIS — Douglas McArthur McCain, an American killed in Syria while fighting with the Islamic State group, was part of a growing number of Americans and other foreigners recruited by terror groups to help them wage war in the Mideast.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest confirmed Wednesday that McCain was fighting for ISIL in Syria in a conflict that now includes thousands of combatants from around 50 countries.
Some questions and answers about Westerners traveling to join the battle in Syria:
WHO ARE THESE TRAVELERS?
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. Comey said the new wave of travelers to Syria was not coming from any particular part of the United States.
In May, for example, a Florida man named Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha was identified as carrying out a suicide truck bombing against Syrian government troops in the city of Idlib.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT McCAIN?
He was born in the Chicago area and moved to Minnesota as a boy. Court records show McCain 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.
HOW DO THE FIGHTERS GET TO SYRIA?
One thing that makes Syria such a problem is that it’s so easy to get to, said Evan Kohlmann, who tracks terrorists and terror activity as chief information officer at Flashpoint Global Partners. Turkey gets direct flights from the United States and Europe. From there, it’s a short drive or taxi ride to the porous Syrian border, he said. That’s different from hopeful jihadis trying to get to much harder-to-reach Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, he said.
Once in Syria, they may start with minor groups, but quickly seek to join the al-Qaida-linked insurgency al-Nusra Front or ISIS.
WHAT ARE AMERICAN AUTHORITIES DOING TO STOP THEM?
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,” said Minneapolis FBI spokesman Kyle Loven.
Minnesota authorities are trying to prevent radicalization by reaching out to local communities, building trust and working to identify young people at risk of recruitment. It’s work they began years ago when the recruitment of Americans to Somalia first cropped up.
“Ultimately, this problem is not going to be solved just by law enforcement, but by law enforcement working in concert with various community groups,” Loven said.
The concern has grown more acute with the beheading of American journalist James Foley by a militant dressed in black with a British accent.
The Islamic State group, now regarded by Western authorities as the most brutal among jihadi organizations, claimed responsibility last week by posting a video of the slaying on the Internet.