Western Jihadis Explain Why They Fight
October 9, 2014
Clarrisa Ward / CBS Evening News & Greg Botelho and Jim Sciutto / CNN & Sophie Cousins / USA Today
CBS News' Clarissa Ward meets a 26-year-old Dutch fighter who abandoned a comfortable life to fight jihad in Syria and interviews a young American volunteer who has spent the last two years fighting with an al Qaeda-aligned rebel group in Syria.More than 100 Americans are among those who have tried to join various militant groups in Syria, US officials say. While some are aligned with ISIS, the fighters shift allegiance and it's difficult to pin down a specific number, officials say.
Western Jihadist on Why He Fights
CBS Evening News
(October 7, 2014) -- CBS News' Clarissa Ward meets a 26-year-old Dutch fighter called Yilmaz who abandoned a comfortable life to fight jihad in Syria. Yilmaz left home without telling his family and traveled to Syria to fight with the rebels and work as a military trainer.
American Jihadist on Why He's Fighting Against the West
CBS Evening News
(October 8, 2014) -- |Ibn Zubayr, as he calls himself, has spent the last two years fighting with an al Qaeda-aligned rebel group in Syria. Zubayr is one of several Americans viewed as a potential threat to the US homeland. Clarissa Ward reports.
Slain ISIS Jihadi among More than
100 Americans Fighting with Militants in Syria
Greg Botelho and Jim Sciutto / CNN
(August 27, 2014) -- An American man died last weekend in Syria while fighting for ISIS, the latest evidence of the reach of a terror group that's become increasingly powerful and feared in the eyes of Americans.
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, died in a battle between rival extremist groups in the suburbs of Aleppo, Syria's once-bustling commercial capital and largest city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that monitors the conflict. The man's uncle, Ken McCain, said that his nephew had gone to fight as a jihadi and that the US State Department told the family Monday about the death.
Like US officials, the group characterized McCain as an ISIS fighter and said he was killed battling al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda-linked organization that the US government has blacklisted as a foreign terror organization.
McCain was not the first American to fight alongside militants in Syria. Attorney General Eric Holder estimated this summer that there are 7,000 foreign fighters in the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation.
More than 100 Americans are among those who have tried to join various militant groups in Syria, US officials say. While some are aligned with ISIS, the fighters shift allegiance and it's difficult to pin down a specific number, officials say.
Who are the Americans fighting for ISIS?
US: Jihadi in Suicide Bombing Video Grew Up in Florida
Nor was McCain the first of these American militants to die in Syria. Islamists touted the role of a 22-year-old man -- identified by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki as Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, who grew up and went to school in Florida -- in a northern Syria suicide bombing conducted in coordination with al-Nusra Front.
Yet McCain's death takes on added significance, perhaps urgency, given that he's believed to be the first American killed while fighting with ISIS.
Until now, Washington largely has limited its involvement in Syria to diplomatic efforts and supporting "moderate opposition," as described by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey and others, that is fighting to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
That's the same goal as ISIS, which aims to rule a caliphate, known as the Islamic State, spanning Iraq and Syria.
Even so, the United States initiated airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq this month and signaled that it might next go after the group inside Syria. And it has begun gathering intelligence on ISIS in Syria, potentially ahead of more airstrikes there.
ISIS has threatened to kill more Americans if the US continues to go after it. But the fact McCain was among its ranks adds another fear: That the group includes other Americans who, rather than dying on the battlefield, might inflict harm stateside.
"There's real concern that they could take what they've learned ... come back home and conduct terror attacks," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told CNN. "So I think (McCain) is a stark reminder of the inside threat that foreign fighters (in ISIS) can pose."
Who was Douglas McCain?
Little was immediately known publicly about McCain's life, beyond how it ended. He attended San Diego City College, though its spokesman Jack Beresford would not say when McCain attended, for how long or for what purpose.
Several years ago, according to his uncle, McCain converted from Christianity to Islam -- the first step on his journey to Syria. The family wasn't alarmed by his conversion, but his Facebook posts sympathetic to ISIS got their attention. When they last heard from him several months ago, McCain said he was traveling to Turkey, according to his uncle.
The fact that McCain became a jihadi left his family "devastated" and "just as surprised as the country," said Ken McCain, who lives in Minnesota. He described the nephew he knew as "a good person, loved his family, loved his mother, loved his faith" -- the latter being a reference to the Christianity he practiced before his conversion.
US counterterrorism investigators had been looking into McCain's activities for some time before his death, one US official said. He was on a list of Americans who are believed to have joined militant groups and who would be stopped and subjected to additional scrutiny if he traveled, according to the official.
Retired US Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, who had top roles in the State and Defense Departments in President George W. Bush's administration, said he expects more stories like McCain's.
"The ability to travel into these countries demonstrates how porous the borders are," Kimmitt said. "I think we need to understand that there's going to be more of this rather than less of this."
California man arrested, wanted to join ISIS
Fears over Westerners in Terror Groups
Syria's civil war has been brewing for three years. In the absence of a unified rebel front, many groups -- some moderate, some more secular, some extremist -- have tried to fill the void. Much of the time, they've battled al-Assad's forces, though there has also been infighting among them.
Among these rebel groups, one has emerged recently in the public's consciousness: ISIS. That's as much due to its brazenness and viciousness as to its success. The general command for al Qaeda -- itself responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- went so far as to disown ISIS and blame it for "the enormity of the disaster that afflicted the Jihad in Syria." Yet the group has thrived. Who is ISIS?
It has taken more and more territory in Iraq and Syria, sometimes overrunning government forces while terrorizing civilians. ISIS's stature grew even more internationally with the recent beheading of American journalist James Foley, a killing it videotaped and then put online.
"They are beyond just a terrorist group," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week. "They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. This is beyond anything we have seen, and we must prepare for everything."
These preparations include tracking Westerners like McCain. In addition to whatever they might do against allies and civilians in the Middle East, US officials worry that they could bring their groups' brand of terror back home.
Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said last month that getting intelligence on such Americans who fight in Syria and making sure they don't bring that right back home is "a top priority."
"We have increased our capacity, we have increased our tracking, we have increased our coordination," Psaki said. "… This is a threat that we take seriously enough to put it at the front and center of our agenda."
CNN's Andy Rose, Evan Perez, Rosalina Nieves, Raja Razek, Samira Said and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.
American Explains Why He's Fighting Against ISIL
Sophie Cousins / USA Today
DERIKE, Syria (October 7, 2014) -- Like many Americans, Jordan Matson is outraged by the brutality of the Islamic State. But unlike virtually every other American, he decided to take on the militants head-on.
Now, the 28-year-old Racine, Wis., man is recovering in a hospital here in northeastern Syria from a shrapnel wound in his foot, the result of a mortar attack by Islamic State fighters in Jazaa, along the Iraqi border.
Tall with slightly graying hair, Matson conceded that people back home might call him crazy for joining Kurdish forces three weeks ago to help end the Islamic State's reign of terror.
"I couldn't just sit and watch Christians being slaughtered anymore," he said in an interview with USA TODAY. "I got sick of giving online sympathy. Five minutes of lip service does nothing. These people are fighting for their homes, for everything they have."
Matson was critical of the United States for being slow to launch air attacks on the Islamic State militants, who have been fighting in Syria for three years and seized large portions of Iraq earlier this year.
"It wasn't until an American was beheaded did we do anything," he said of the execution of journalist James Foley in August. "We just let the monster grow and grow. For the US government, it's not about human life. It's about how they look in the opinion polls," added Matson, who was wearing a military uniform and a traditional Kurdish black and white scarf across his shoulders.
Matson, who now goes by the name Sadar, served in the US Army as an infantryman from May 2006 until November 2007, attaining the rank of private first class, according to Army Human Resources Command. His record does not indicate why he left the Army after less than two years, but he said in the interview that he was discharged because of an injury and did not deploy overseas.
Matson said he knows one other American who has joined the fight against the militants, but did not give his name. "We met one hour before we were attacked and we were joking how funny it would be if we were attacked when we'd just met one another," he said.
To get to the battlefield here, Matson said he worked as a delivery driver for a food service company for six months to save enough money for a flight and to support himself for the three years that he expects to be here.
"I was Googling the Syrian civil war looking for a military force fighting ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIL) that wasn't a terrorist organization. I found the YPG (Kurdish People's Protection Unit) on Facebook and saw it wasn't a terrorist organization so I contacted them," he said. "They asked me a few questions to make sure I wasn't pro-ISIS and then they told me I could come. I just flew by the seat of my pants."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to discuss Matson for privacy reasons, and said she was unaware of any law barring a US citizen fighting with the Kurds.
Matson flew from Chicago to Warsaw to Istanbul, and then drove to Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey. There he was picked up by a YPG member who drove him to Iraq, where he crossed the border into Syria pretending to be a doctor.
"They don't pay me, but they treat me like family. If I need anything, they look after me," he said.
Able to speak a few words of Kurdish and with the help of sign language, he manages to get his point across to his comrades and the doctors at the rundown hospital filled with wounded fighters in this largely desolate city. Matson said the Kurdish forces are very young with no heavy weapons or body armor "Sometimes it's just kids. That's the way it is. I have a Kalashnikov (automatic rifle), that's it."
"In the dark, with no night vision goggles, we can't see ISIS," he said. "The other night 12 black figures walked towards our base and just starting shooting at us."
He laughed as he recalled a young YPG fighter whose aim was so bad he wasn't able to shoot a chicken for dinner one evening. Despite his comrades' shortcomings, he remains committed to the battle. "Once I can put a boot back on," he said, "I'm back there."
Contributing: The Army Times
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