How did a kid from the Midwest end up a jihadi fighting for terrorists in Syria?
That's the question national media outlets have been scrambling to answer since NBC News broke the story Tuesday that a 33-year-old man who grew up and went to high school in Minnesota was killed while fighting in Syria over the weekend.
NBC News says the body of Douglas McAuthur McCain, who attended Robbinsdale schools, was discovered after a firefight between ISIS and a separate opposition group. (McCain attended both Robbinsdale Cooper High School and Robbinsdale Armstrong High School, but graduated from neither, according to district records, the New York Times reports.)
He was one of three foreigners fighting on behalf of ISIS who died in the gun battle, according to NBC News.
A national security spokeswoman at the White House, Caitlin Hayden, released a statement Tuesday night confirming the death of McCain, and said U.S. officials knew he was in Syria.
"We were aware of U.S. Citizen Douglas McAuthur McCain's presence in Syria and can confirm his death,'' Hayden said. "We continue to use every tool we possess to disrupt and dissuade individuals from traveling abroad for violent jihad and to track and engage those who return."
NBC News first reported McCain's death, saying it had seen photos of McCain's body, including a distinctive neck tattoo, and his U.S. passport.
It's not yet clear what caused McCain's "metamorphosis" from a high school kid in a Minneapolis suburb to ISIS fighter, CNN reports. The network talks with a friend named Isaac Chase, who lived in the same New Hope apartment building as McCain and played basketball with him growing up. Chase said McCain was a quiet kid seeking his life's purpose.
Chase joined the Air Force in 2007 and served in Iraq, and he was confused to learn his friend had become a soldier for ISIS.
"That's what hurts the most because he was a good person, and I just don't understand why anyone would do anything to the U.S," Chase told CNN.
Kenyata McCain told FOX 9 News her reaction was stunned disbelief – both that her cousin was fighting with a terrorist group, and that he died.
"If that turns out to be true, it has a lot to do with his beliefs that we don't know about – the way he changed that we don't know about," Kenyata McCain told Fox 9 News. "The person we know, this is not who he was."
A day after the news broke, there are far more questions than answers about McCain's recent past and how he died, the Washington Post reports.
Among the unknowns are specifics about how he was killed in the recent Islamic State battle, into which he carried his U.S. passport and $800, the Post notes. The New York Times says the rebels who killed McCain were fighting for the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. The group beheaded six ISIS fighters, but not McCain, and posted the images to Facebook, the Times reports.
Also among the unanswered questions: Did McCain follow his path to Syria alone? And most fundamentally: What led him down a path of radicalization and violence?
Family had been concerned
McCain had a few minor run-ins with the law while living in Minnesota, the Star Tribune reports. He was convicted of a minor drug possession crime, theft, disorderly conduct and driving after his license was revoked. The booking photos in the tweet above are from Anoka County in 2003, left, and Hennepin County in 2008, according to NBC.
The New York Times says after the Michael Jordan-loving teen lost interest in basketball and grew into an adult, he was arrested or cited a total of nine times on charges including theft, marijuana possession and driving without a license.
Friends and family members of McCain talked about him to reporters, describing a young man who was fun to be around, lighthearted, and devoted to his family. They say he converted to Islam – one of McCain's tweets said he "reverted" – in 2004.
The Star Tribune reports family of McCain had been concerned about his recent support of ISIS. The paper spoke with two cousins, who said they'd communicated with McCain since he traveled overseas, one of them as recently as last Friday.
McCain had moved to San Diego at some point, and then earlier this year traveled to Turkey before heading to Syria, NBC reports. Kenyata McCain told FOX 9 her cousin moved to San Diego a few years after high school, got married, had a child and converted to Islam about a decade ago.
On his Twitter account and now-deactivated Facebook profile, McCain outwardly expressed his support for Islam, posting quotes and sayings related to the religion.
"Its Islam over everything," his Twitter bio, under the name Duale Khalid, says. On Facebook he went by "Duale ThaslaveofAllah."
In recent months, his Twitter account displayed outward support of ISIS, including retweeting a tweet that says "It takes a warrior to understand a warrior. Pray for ISIS."
Some images on his Facebook page were removed throughout the afternoon Tuesday, since the time McCain's death was reported, the Star Tribune notes.
What is ISIS?
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now commonly referred to as ISIS, formed in April of 2013 after a split with a regional al-Qaida force, the BBC explains, and prior to that was known as "The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant." It's now often referred to simply as the Islamic State. The militant group grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq, but as the BBC notes the Islamic State and al-Qaida split, leading to the birth of the ISIS in its current form.
According to The Telegraph, ISIS for a long time was a relatively minor force, fighting American and British troops in the Baghdad area. Last year, the group used the civil war in Syria to recruit that country's rebels and expand beyond its small scope in Iraq.
CNN says they've been able to thrive because of a "security vacuum" in the region, the goal being to create an Islamic state that stretches across portions of Iraq and Syria. An Islamic State means the installation of Sharia, often-strict Islamic law, CNN explains – rather than the political systems currently in place in both countries.
ISIS released a video last week which showed the beheading of American journalist James Foley.
The Chicago Tribune describes ISIS' methods as "exceptionally brutal," with reports of mass beheadings when the group overran the city of Mosul in northern Iraq (about 90 minutes from the Syrian border). The violence is often directed at other religious groups, such as Shiite Muslims, Iraqi Yazidi and Christians.
CNN says ISIS has thrived by keeping the support of influential local tribal leaders and offering welfare and medical facilities in the newly conquered towns.
The BBC says ISIS has taken control of notable strong points in the area, including the Syrian city of Raqqa and Fallujah in Iraq. When the group captured Mosul in June, it secured with it hundreds of millions of dollars in financing as well.
President Barack Obama began limited airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq starting the first week of August, the New York Times reported, in an attempt to slow down the group's momentum and stop it from seizing more territory.