Going Nowhere

08.28.145:55 AM ET

American Jihadis Douglas McCain and Troy Kastigar: From Losers to Martyrs

If you can’t make it anywhere, you can make it there—that, at least, seems to have been the theory of Douglas McCain and Troy Kastigar, friends who ended up with ISIS and al-Shabab.

Why be a loser when you can be a martyr?

That was the sad and screwy logic that propelled Douglas McAuthur McCain and his pal Troy Kastigar.

The same dynamic has driven other disappointed souls and threatens to drive many more, as ISIS and al-Shabab and their murderous ilk offer an exciting travel destination to those who are going nowhere.

A plane ticket can take you from jerk to jihadi.

And if you can’t make it anywhere, you can make it there.

But while it seems an odd coincidence that McCain and Kastigar both managed to lose a front tooth in the course of their journeys, it is no surprise that they both ultimately reached the deadest of dead ends.

McCain and Kastigar were born two months apart in 1981 and were buddies at Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope outside Minneapolis. A class of 1999 yearbook picture shows them standing together, though neither seems to have graduated.

While others in the class went on to college, McCain moved in with Kastigar, who was living with his single mom and younger brother in a suburban six-bedroom house on a tree-lined street in New Hope. McCain nonetheless seems to have remained close with his family, who had moved from Chicago to Minnesota when the housing project where they resided was vacated in surrender to gang and violence blight. His given name and middle name may have been in tribute to the famous World War II general Douglas MacArthur, though the spelling would suggest otherwise.

As they went from their teens into their 20s, McCain and Kastigar each had minor run-ins with the law. A sheriff’s mugshot of Kastigar shows that he had a tattoo on the right side of his neck that included “MOB” in apparent tribute not to the Bloods gang but to a local rap crew called GMOB. McCain also got a tattoo on the right side of his neck, though his was more ornate, perhaps reflecting his ambition to make a name of his own as a rapper.

The two sometimes played basketball at the local community center, the African-American McCain and the Native American Kastigar shooting hoops with young men from a large Somali enclave. Neither was particularly skilled.

Kastigar took an interest in Islam and became close with someone named Mohamoud Hassan, who was preparing to join al-Shabab in its jihad in Somalia. Kastigar embraced Islam and took to calling himself Abdirahman.

In November 2008, Kastigar told his mother that he was traveling to Kenya to study the Qur’an. The 28-year-old adolescent instead went to Somalia. His neck tattoo helped identify him after he and Hassan were killed that following September. They were buried side by side.

The media ran a high school photo of Kastigar, and nobody imagined there was any significance in the kid who stood on his immediate left. That was McCain, who had since moved to San Diego and taken a job at a restaurant called African Spice. He had himself embraced Islam, though his coworkers do not remember him as being particularity religious.

“He was just a regular American kid,” a coworker would later tell a reporter.

McCain seemed to be shaken when his father died. He retained a deep attachment to his mother, Judie McCain, and posted a photo of her on Facebook.

“MY BEAUTIFUL MOTHER NOW YALL KNOW WHERE I GET IT FROM,” he wrote.

He still hoped to make it as a rapper and went to Sweden, where the relative rarity of being American and a person of color might compensate for a shortcoming in originality. But iTunes was as brimming with the truly talented there as it was back home.

As his dream faded, McCain’s religious fervor intensified. He changed his Facebook profile photo to the sheriff’s mugshot of the pal who had gone on to die as a jihadi in Somalia.

“One of the realize niggas I know,” he wrote on December 21, 2012.

In the summer of 2013, al-Shabab released a recruiting video called “Minnesota’s Martyrs: The Path to Paradise” that included video taken of Kastigar before his death. Kastigar still had the tattoo, but he had grown a beard and lost a front tooth. The gap imparted a goofiness to his smile as he rhapsodized about the glories of jihad. The words must have seemed to McCain like a personal message from his dead friend.

As McCain and Kastigar and too many others have shown, all the bad guys need to do is offer a way to stop feeling like a loser.

“This is the best place to be, honestly,” Kastigar gushed. “I can only tell you that you have the best of dreams, you eat the best of food, and you are with the best of brothers and sisters who came here for the sake of Allah. If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here. This is the real Disneyland. You need to come here and join us.”

McCain had himself lost a front tooth and he may have been making an inside joke with the departed Kastigar as he began making Islamist pronouncements on Twitter as “Duale Khalid @iamthetooth.”

There was nothing joking about McCain’s tag line declaring that in following Kastigar into the faith he had found a way to overcome everything that had thwarted them since their high school days:

“....it’s Islam over everything.”

But Somalia was now a sideshow. The big drama was in Syria and Iraq. McCain began following two dozen ISIS members and sympathizers on Twitter. He traveled to Turkey, and someone told his family that he had been seen in a Burger King in Istanbul. His family imagined that he had stayed there, even as he tweeted otherwise.

“I am with the brothers now.”

Over this past weekend, word came that McCain and two other ISIS members had been killed after ambushing and killing a pair of Free Syrian Army rebels. The 33-year-old adolescent was found with his American passport in his pocket, and the identification was confirmed by his neck tattoo, as it had been with his old high school pal.

Like Kastigar, McCain had been killed after being dispatched on a relatively minor mission against fellow Muslims. The fact that they were expended for so little despite possessing U.S. citizenship suggests that their masters figure there will be plenty of American jihadis available when the target switches from the immediate opposition on the ground to the enemy they call the Great Satan.

As McCain and Kastigar and too many others have shown, all the bad guys need to do is offer a way to stop feeling like a loser.