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The American who died fighting for ISIS, as seen through his Twitter feed

Douglas McAuthur McCain.
Douglas McAuthur McCain.
Facebook/NBC News
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

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:

His tweets related to Islam, too, were pretty innocuous:

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:

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: