FBI tries to stem flow of recruits to Syria; 2nd Minnesotan feared dead

Fighters with the Islamic State in Syria.
Fighters with the Islamic State parade in Raqqa, Syria.
Associated Press

Even as federal authorities try to stop the flow of potential fighters from Minnesota to Syria, more are on the way, according to the top FBI official in Minneapolis.

People are leaving the state to join terrorist groups in Syria "as we speak," Richard Thornton, special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis division, told The Daily Circuit Thursday.

Officials confirmed this week that Douglas McAuthur McCain, a 33-year-old man who grew up in the Twin Cities, died in Syria. McCain is presumed to have been fighting for the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

MPR News reporter Laura Yuen has been following this story and breaks down the latest developments.

What do we know about reports that a second American fighter may have died while fighting for ISIS?

Details are very sketchy, but a lot of media outlets and people on social media have reported his death.

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The fighter, a man MPR News profiled in June, is Abdirahmaan Muhumed, who claimed he left the Twin Cities to fight alongside ISIS.

Many of the reports about him are not well sourced, and in some cases they are inaccurate.

MPR News obtained a graphic photograph being circulated in the Somali-American community that sources say was sent via text message to Muhumed's family after he was killed. The photo shows a man lying on the ground after apparently being shot in the head. He's well built, wearing a dark military vest, and has a beard. MPR News has not confirmed if Muhumed is the man in the photo.

Several of Muhumed's family members have declined to comment.

However, on Thursday, a friend of Muhumed who saw the photo, said it was clearly him.

"That's him," said Farhan Abdullahi Hussein of Minneapolis, who met Muhumed several years ago.

Hussein said he last saw Muhumed in Minneapolis in September 2013, and spoke to him via Facebook on July 25 of this year. He said he sent Muhumed other messages but never received a response.

"Lately I have that feeling that he is going to die or something," Hussein said. "Then I started asking him, 'Are you OK? Are you alive or anything?' But I never got any [response] back."

Hussein said that when he heard reports that Muhumed might have been killed, he thought there was a 50-50 chance that they were true.

"What made me believe now is just when I see his body hanging around that he got shot in the head, just right here," Hussein said, "the picture that [I've] just seen."

State Department tweet
An image of the U.S. Department of State's deleted tweet, sent August 28, 2014.
Screengrab from Twitter

What do official sources say about the death?

State Department on Thursday repeated what they had told reporters the day before — they could not confirm Muhumed's death.

But on social media, department officials briefly told another story. A State Department unit that aims to counter terrorist groups, posted on its Twitter feed a local TV news story that reported Muhumed had been killed.

The Tweet, which has since been removed, said Muhumed "wastes his life dying for ISIS." That would indicate that the State Department is signaling different messages from the podium and on social media.

What does the FBI say about the most recent departures?

Special Agent-in-Charge Rick Thornton didn't offer many specifics on how many fighters left for the Middle East or when they departed. But he did say they traveled from Minnesota to Syria "very recently." This confirms reports from the Somali-American community that another group has recently left for Syria.

But even with the most recent wave of trips, the FBI is still characterizing the total number of Minnesotans who are fighting in Syria as just "a handful." The total number of Americans who have joined the fighting there is believed to be more than 100.

Douglas McAuthur McCain
Douglas McAuthur McCain.
Associated Press

The FBI has poured a lot of resources into combatting the threat of American fighters aligning with terrorist groups like ISIS.

How could more people leave at a time when so much attention is focused on this?

Thornton said that identifying such recruits is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Over the past several years, the FBI has reached out particularly to members of the Somali-American community, asking them to be on the lookout for those who might be considered disaffected, have a void in their lives that they're looking to fill and have taken up a radical form of Islam. That's because there has been a history of mostly Somali-American men who travelling to their families' homeland to fight for the terrorist group al-Shabab.

But the news this week that Douglas McAuthur McCain died fighting for ISIS in Syria is a good reminder that the problem isn't isolated to the Somali community. McCain was not Somali.

Why are federal authorities so alarmed by the trend?

Western recruits from the United States and Europe are very valuable to groups like ISIS because their passports allow them to travel freely. Thornton said although such recruits are small in number, they represent a very dangerous threat.

"The real concern is that people go over there, they fight, and at some point they return home further radicalized with the training and the skills and potentially the motivation to do harm back in the United States," Thornton said.

In June, FBI Director James Comey told MPR News in June that he wakes up every morning worrying about that threat.