According to the network, Douglas McAuthur McCain was killed over the weekend while fighting with the Islamic State, or IS, against members of a separate opposition group in Syria. Family members confirmed his passing to NBC, and senior administration officials speaking anonymously acknowledged that they were aware of the man’s death.
US officials have not spoken further on the record about the incident, but NBC’s Cassandra Vinograd and Ammar Cheikh Omar wrote on Monday that activists with the Free Syrian Army confirmed the news and provided the network with photographs of McCain’s body containing tattoos that correlate with images on his public Facebook profile and Twitter account. Additionally, NBC reported that the activists also located McCain’s travel documents.
“The battle in itself seemed tragically normal. Two Syrian opposition groups fought and there were heavy casualties on both sides,” the journalists wrote. “Then victorious rebels rifled through the pockets of the dead. One contained about $800 in cash — and an American passport.”
“He was a normal guy who was social, open-minded, liked to smile always, and always wanted to be a good Muslim,” one acquaintance of the man told NBC. “He was a goofball in high school,” added another former classmate.
To one senior administration official, though, Americans who travel abroad to fight among the ranks of groups like the Islamic State pose a very real problem to security back in the States.
“The threat we are most concerned about to the homeland is that of fighters like this returning to the US and committing acts of terrorism,” NBC quoted the unnamed official as saying.
The US Department of State has previously spoken out to condemn the activities of any Americans who may have traveled abroad, and last week a spokesperson for the agency said that thousands of fighters from outside of Syria have since traveled to the war-torn nation to take up arms in its three-year-old civil war.
“We think that there are approximately 12,000 fighters from at least 50 countries in Syria — foreign fighters, including a small number of Americans — that may have traveled to Syria since the beginning of the conflict” deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Thursday. “They may all not still be there,” she added.
Indeed, at least one American — a Florida man named Moner Mohammad Abusalha — has previously died in Syria after carrying out a suicide bombing mission this past May.
“The Abusalha case is an object lesson in how difficult it is to identify self-radicalized people in the US, and to track people who go from the US to Syria and return,” one senior law enforcement official told NBC at the time. “This difficulty has been a repeated subject of publicly expressed concern for months.”
“Syria is attracting more foreign fighters than Afghanistan did in its heyday,” Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, previously told Business Insider.