What’s Motivating Some Young Westerners to Join Militant Islamist Groups?

Some of the young people from Western Europe and North America who are believed to be supporting Islamic terrorist groups Kastigar (AP); Begolly (AP); Poulin (Handout); Hassan (AP); Bana (AP); Kesinovic (Interpol); Kaziu (AP); Abu-Salha (AP); Dare (Handout)
Some of the young people from Western Europe and North America who are believed to be supporting Islamic terrorist groups
Kastigar (AP); Begolly (AP); Poulin (Handout); Hassan (AP); Bana (AP); Kesinovic (Interpol); Kaziu (AP); Abu-Salha (AP); Dare (Handout)

In the late 1990s two teenagers, Douglas McAuthur McCain and Abdirahmaan Muhumed, were growing up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Separated by ethnic background and four years of age, it’s unlikely they crossed paths as youths. Neither could have guessed how their lives would intersect on a battlefield 15 years later.

McCain, an African-American and high-school jokester, became an amateur rapper—even attending an underground rap show in Sweden. He moved to San Diego, Calif., where he worked at a Somali restaurant called African Spice.

Muhumed, one of about 30,000 ethnic Somalis living in Minnesota, worked from 2001 to 2011 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, refueling and cleaning passenger airplanes. He enjoyed visiting the gym and discussing NBA stars, but could have a bad temper when talking Muslim politics, especially if he’d been drinking. He reportedly had at least eight children and separated from three wives.

So how did Muhumed, 29, and McCain, 33, end up reported dead 6,000 miles from Minnesota, in northern Syria, during a weekend battle in late August?

Both had been fighting on behalf of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—the first two Americans to die doing so. Islamic State has expelled Christians, raped women and girls, and executed hundreds or thousands of civilians and members of ethnic minorities, often by bullet shots to the head. It has filmed beheadings of kidnapped American journalists and British aid workers.

Members of the Free Syrian Army, a rival rebel group, found McCain’s body clothed in military camouflage and a flak vest, riddled with bullet holes in his head, jaw, and leg. He had his American passport and $800 in cash. The news reports shocked friends and relatives back home. “My cousin wouldn’t support a terrorist group like that,” Kanyata McCain told NBC News.

Muhumed’s parents received a photo showing what appeared to be their son’s body, shot in the head. (Beyond the photo, the State Department couldn’t immediately confirm Muhumed’s death.) A friend of Muhumed called his radicalization “very unpredictable.”

The two Minnesotans are among about 100 Americans who have joined or attempted to join militant Islamist organizations in the past few years—part of a disturbing trend of terrorist recruitment in the West. U.S. intelligence officials say they know of about a dozen Americans currently fighting in Syria with groups like Islamic State.

Why would young Westerners want to join a backward, bloodthirsty brigade? By one estimate, as many as 2,000 people from Western Europe or North America have become fighters in Syria and Iraq. Last month 19-year-old Chicagoan Mohammed Hamzah Khan allegedly planned to join Islamic State: FBI agents arrested him just before he boarded an international flight.

Experts say some recruits might be intrigued by the group’s objective: to create a new Islamic caliphate ruled by fundamentalist Islamic law—Sharia. Others might believe they are giving their lives purpose by battling moderate Muslims and unbelievers.

It isn’t clear what, or who, convinced McCain and Muhumed to take their Islamic faith to an extreme: McCain in recent years posted militant images on Facebook, and sometime this year he traveled to Syria, tweeting, “I’m with the brothers now.” Muhumed in January posted a photo to Facebook of himself holding a rifle and a Quran. “Allah loves those who fight for his cause,” he wrote.

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Daniel James Devine

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