Minneapolis mom reflects on son and friend both lost to jihad

Julie Boada
Julie Boada, mother of Troy Kastigar, photographed in her Minneapolis home, Aug. 29, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Julie Boada can still see the joy in the faces of the two young men.

In photographs just a handful of years old, they bear the confident yet goofy smiles of teenagers. But today, both are gone, claimed by a holy war that Boada insists wasn't theirs to fight.

News reports this week that a young Minnesotan died while fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria brought back painful memories for Boada, a Minneapolis mom. Her son, Troy Kastigar, was killed five years ago after a terrorist group in Somalia recruited him.

Kastigar was a close friend and classmate of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the man who was killed in Syria.

On Friday, as she flipped through stacks of photos of her late son, it was clear that he had all the hallmarks of a typical childhood: trips to the lake, proud moments from basketball and karate class — and a tight bond with McCain, a friend from Robbinsdale Cooper High School

Doug McCain and Troy Kastigar
After Troy Kastigar's death, Julie Boada's sister made her a scrapbook filled with photographs of Troy. This one shows Kastigar, right, with his friend Douglas McCain.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

"That's Troy and Doug," Boada said as she pointed to a class photo of the two.

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As teenagers, Kastigar and McCain were at times inseparable, from the night they dressed up in tuxedos to attend a school dance, to the moment they thought it would be funny to model underwear on their heads.

Both boys were fun-loving, goofy, and social, Boada said. They even shared a kind of bouncy, wired energy.

"So they moved in the world kind of in the same way, in the same kind of bodies," she said.

Despite their similarities, it's baffling to Boada that her son and McCain, both Muslim converts born just two months apart, would both die on the battlefield while fighting in different parts of the globe.

McCain was African-American. Kastigar was of white and of his mom's Anishinabe heritage. They had no ethnic ties to the parts of the world they were drawn to take up arms. The problem of Westerners fighting for terrorist groups overseas is so much of a concern that federal authorities have asked Muslim leaders and others in the Twin Cities to be on the lookout for anyone who might be vulnerable to radicalization.

But what does that vulnerability look like?

When Boada reflects on the past, she thinks her son's life took a turn when he was about 16. She took him and his brother on a northern Minnesota camping trip along the Temperance River. One of Kastigar's friends came along and drowned after jumping in under a waterfall.

"I do wonder if he felt responsible," Boada said of her son. "Maybe he was the one who said, 'Let's jump there!'...To me, that's when things really changed for him."

She said her only regret as a parent is not taking her sons to counseling after that.

Shortly after his friend's death, Kastigar started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol, and stopped going to class. He dropped out of high school. He moved in and out of his mother's house. In his 20s, he began running into trouble with the law. He got a tattoo branded on his neck. Every bad decision took him further from the prospect of finding a job and living a productive life.

Troy Kastigar
Julie Boada holds a photograph of her son Troy Kastigar taken when he was in his early 20s.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

When he was mugged at a gas station, Kastigar lost his front teeth in the scuffle. It made him appear tough, but his mother said he was deeply embarrassed by his new look.

So when Kastigar converted to Islam about five years out of high school, his family noticed a dramatic change.

"It was really, really lovely, actually," his mother recalled. "He stopped all of his chemical use. His eyes were bright, and he was enthusiastic — and really happy finding a path that made sense to him."

Boada felt as if Islam returned the old Troy to her. Still, she never sensed her son was becoming radical. Instead, she thought he had perhaps become a strict adherent of Islam.

[He was] "not eating pork, not eating anything that wasn't halal, not taking pictures — but a little bit," she said, with a laugh. "He liked having his picture taken a lot."

With this newfound purpose, Kastigar went to school to become an X-ray technician. But then he learned that his criminal history was getting in the way of finding a job, especially during a time when there were few jobs to go around.

"In fact there's one spot — he punched the wall after he got a call and said he didn't get a job," Boada recalled. "He wanted to work...He wanted to be a man."

About a year later, he told her he was leaving for Kenya to study the Quran. It wasn't until the following summer, in 2009, when FBI agents came to her door, that she learned authorities suspected him of having joined al-Shabab.

She believes her son, who had many Somali-American friends, believed he was going to be a freedom fighter to help the Somali people. As she now knows, al-Shabab has inflicted nothing but pain on the Somali people by way of suicide bombings.

But Boada doesn't think her son wanted to harm anyone. Instead, she said, he was simply desperate to find a sense of purpose.

"I think he really liked the idea of being valuable, and being needed," she said.

Last year, four years after he was killed in Somalia, Kastigar did make a name for himself. He starred in an al-Shabab propaganda video in which he beckoned other American fighters to join the jihad.

Troy Kastigar
Troy Kastigar in a 2013 Al-Shabaab recruitment video.
Screengrab of video

"If you only knew how much fun we have here," he said. "This is the real Disneyland. You need to come here and join us and take part in this fun."

Boada can't bring herself to watch the entire video. But in the bits she has seen on news reports, there are glimmers of the son she remembers.

"It's hard to think he changed," she said. "He still seems so goofy and happy. How does that person be also this other thing, you know?"

FBI officials say young Twin Cities men are still traveling to Syria to fight for terrorist groups.

If Boada could say anything to mothers whose sons are at risk, she would tell them to talk to them and let them know "they're being used."

The painful discussions they might have will be worth it if it helps them avoid losing their sons to war.

"If you lose a child to murder or a child to disease, you get immediate compassion," said Boada, who often does not tell people what happened to her son.

"I might say, 'My son died,' or, 'It's a big tragedy,' and I'll say nothing more," she said. "I don't want to have to defend him."