An American citizen was killed on the Syrian battlefield over the weekend, while fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to NBC News. His name was Douglas McAuthur McCain, and he died in a battle with another Syrian militant group at age 33.
Like a lot of Americans his age, McCain had a Twitter account, which he began using in late 2012 and survives as a strangely revealing window into his life. NBC identified it as @iamthetooth, where he calls himself Duale Khalid.
Though McCain appears to have began identifying as Muslim around 2004, he didn't become radicalized until fairly recently. Except for a severely homophobic bent, most of his tweets up until May 2014 were pretty apolitical. For example, he talks about smoking hookah and pot, enjoyed watching National Geographic, and hated The Help:
Why do these fags keep saying that they were born gay no bitch you choose to put a dick in your ass just saying— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) January 15, 2013
Even when sky start fallen I still go b high yeah I got faith in weed man and @Bitchplease510 got that mali by the bean bags— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) December 14, 2012
Subhanallah. Watchin NAT GEO..... Allah is truly Amazin— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) December 27, 2012
Watching the Help starting to make me hate white people— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) December 12, 2012
Smokin hooka fuck what else can u do in. Diego— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) December 22, 2012
I'm not feelin this Twitter shit— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) December 12, 2012
I'm the shit u smell me bitch— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) December 13, 2012
His tweets related to Islam, too, were pretty innocuous:
Turn 2 Allah b4 u return 2 Allah— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) December 21, 2012
Very true there is nothin like a mother love pic.twitter.com/lWIzyBnE— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) January 2, 2013
Then, after a long Twitter hiatus, he returns in May 2014, and starts sounding a lot more like an extremist. He retweets hardline ISIS content and condemns Muslims who don't adhere to his strict interpretation of Islamic law:
It's funny to me how all these so call Muslim claim that they love Allah but always curse the one who try to implement his laws— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) June 8, 2014
Islam is the religion Muslims are the people. Follow the religion not the people— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) May 15, 2014
Two takeaways really stick out from these. First, people who join terrorist groups like ISIS aren't always masterminds. Though we have a Hollywood-inflected stereotype that all terrorists are well-trained and hyper-competent, the truth of the matter is that a lot of them stumble into it. Many are shockingly bad at terrorism.
That's not just true for Americans who join ISIS, of course, but looking at an American helps hammer home the ordinariness of a lot of these guys (and girls).
On the other hand, though, the fact that people as ordinary-seeming as McCain can be radicalized also points to what so scares counter-terrorism professionals about "homegrown" extremism. Nothing about McCain's Twitter feed suggested what he was planning to join ISIS until he had already joined. NBC notes that he posted some ISIS propaganda on his Facebook page, but that's hardly damning evidence. If you can't really predict who's going to be radicalized, how do you stop it?
Regardless of how you think about these problems, reading the tweets reminds you that this is a real person we're talking. McCain made terrible choices, and died fighting for an evil cause. But it's hard not to be haunted by this:
Ya Allah when it's my time to go have mercy on my soul have mercy on my bros— Duale Khalid (@iamthetooth) May 15, 2014