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2 Minnesota classmates die years apart fighting for Islamic extremist groups

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New details about a man with Minnesota ties who is believed to be the first known American to be killed while fighting with Islamic militants in Syria was friends and classmates with another Minnesota man who died fighting with an extremist group overseas in 2009, reports say.

Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, was one of three foreigners to die while fighting on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaida breakaway organization that fights the government of President Bashar al-Assad and other rebel groups.

McCain was killed in a gun battle with another opposition group, and it's been reported that a second man with Minnesota ties was killed during the same gun battle, but the National Security Council hasn't confirmed those reports. It's not clear if these two men knew each other, Slate reports.

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 wasn't the only member of Robbinsdale Cooper's Class of 1999 to die fighting with Islamic radicals. NBC News and ABC News are reporting Thursday that McCain's onetime best friend and classmate Troy Kastigar was killed fighting with jihadist group al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate, in Somalia in 2009.

“It’s remarkable that two terrorists from one high school,” Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism advisor, told ABC News. “The appeal of jihad is it gives them purpose. It gives them a way out of a life that’s going nowhere. It gives them a higher calling.”

A recruitment video released years after Kastigar's death shows him saying, "This is the real Disneyland. You can come here and join us."

Kastigar and McCain also briefly shared an address and were close friends, ABC News says. But while they were in high school, there was "No indication whatsoever that these two students would eventually end up fighting for al-Shabab or ISIS," David Brom, who was principal at Robbinsdale Cooper when McCain and Kastigar were students, told the news station.

Julianne Boada, Kastigar's mother, told the New York Daily News, "They both were sort of searching, it seemed like. ... I think both of them had a really strong desire to be needed and (be) of value."

Classmates of both men told NBC News that they were good, loving kids, but were always together and were the type to be persuaded.

Reports say McCain and Kastigar were both converts who had become increasingly more extremist before they went overseas. It's not known why these two men turned to extremist groups, but NBC News says "the answer could lie in the troubling trend of homegrown radicals in the heartland of the U.S."

Minneapolis is home to the largest population of Somalis outside East Africa and it has been fertile ground for Islamic terrorist groups looking for recruits to fight for al-Shabab in Somalia. Now it appears extremists may be recruiting young men to Syria, as well.

MPR News recently reported that up to 15 young Somali-American men from the Twin Cities have traveled to Syria to join ISIS and other radical groups.

FBI investigator Kyle Loven told FOX 9 that terrorist groups are using many tools, including social media and YouTube, to recruit young American men to fight in Africa, and they’re targeting people who feel disenfranchised and are often unemployed.

Somali community activist Abdirazak Bihi said the extremists are now targeting young women as well, according to FOX 9.

“They are brainwashing them to marry them off to jihadists,” he said. “They call them to help out as nurses, help out the wounded — but the real catch is they will be sexually exploited.”

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.

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