(TNS) - When news spread that former San Diego City College student Douglas McCain had died in battle in Syria — making him the first US citizen to be killed fighting for the Islamic State — the investigation quickly pivoted close to home. How had he gotten there, and who had been supporting him?
The FBI scrutiny landed on his brother, Marchello McCain, living in an apartment in east San Diego, and a close-knit group of friends the siblings had made growing up in Minnesota — some of whom were radicalized when they previously lived in San Diego.
On Friday, one arm of the investigation culminated with a 10-year prison sentence for Marchello McCain. The 35-year-old factory worker had pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of firearms and lying to the FBI as they probed his brother’s terrorism ties.
But, in arguing for a stiffer prison sentence, prosecutors accused Marchello McCain of far more sinister motives, laying out for the first time in great detail evidence they say shows he was part of a conspiracy to support terrorism in Syria, and that he planned to eventually join his brother in the jihad there.
Bolstering their case was an informant, a 22-year-old former San Diegan and one-time jihad supporter who testified for a few hours during the sentencing hearing in front of US District Judge Thomas Whelan.
The testimony by the informant, Abdirahman Bashir, gave incredible insight into how a network of young men in the United States became radicalized, the powerful recruiting methods they used on family and friends, and the logistics of leaving everything behind to fight for martyrdom overseas.
The McCain brothers grew up in Minneapolis, with Douglas moving first to San Diego in 2005 and Marchello following a year later. Douglas moved with two friends who were brothers — men who would end up radicalizing during their time in San Diego and recruit others in their circle to join the movement, Bashir testified.
Bashir, a middle-schooler at the time, and Hanad Mohallim, another youth who was cousins with the two men, were instructed to watch radical Islamic videos online that spoke of the paradise and blessings for foreign fighters, as well as the evils of American policies on Muslims.
“If you die a martyr you can intercede for family members, they are sinning,” Bashir said of some of the teachings. “If a few of us (die), generations can be saved from the hellfire.”
The two radical mentors — Hamsa and Hirsi Karie — later moved to Canada, strengthening their ideology, and continued to groom the two youth. Meanwhile, the McCain brothers also remained close associates. And then all that talk — about the duty of all Muslims to join jihad, about the paradise that awaited martyrs — was put into action. The Karie brothers left for Syria — the site of a bloody civil war between President Bashar Assad's regime and numerous rebel groups. Some of those groups were more moderate and backed by the US, while others were developing a reputation for extreme violence and religious views. The Karie brothers joined the latter — the Islamic State.
Mohallim also wanted to follow in his cousins’ footsteps. According to testimony, he told Bashir that his original plan was to travel to Syria with Marchello McCain in January 2014. That didn’t happen.
But other plans were being made that January. Authorities say another cousin of Bashir’s — Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi, aka “Phish” — and others robbed a jewelry store in Edmonton, Canada, to fund his relatives’ journeys to Syria. (Although, in emails uncovered by authorities, he admitted it was harder than he imagined to unload the loot for cash, according to evidence presented in court. He is in custody for that crime but is also charged in San Diego in a newly unsealed indictment with conspiracy to provide support to terrorists.)
In March 2014, Abdullahi wired about $3,000 to Douglas McCain and Mohallim, authorities said. Marchello McCain then deposited $2,600 into his wife’s bank account, prosecutors said. On March 8, plane tickets to Turkey were bought with the wife’s credit card. Douglas departed for the Middle East the next day, from San Diego.
Mohallim also left that day, from Minneapolis. His friend Bashir drove him to the airport, Bashir testified. Bashir said that he had long struggled with what to make of the conflict in Syria, but he decided that moment that if Mohallim found that true jihad was being waged there, then he would try to join his brethren.
When Mohallim’s mother learned of the trip shortly after, she flew to Turkey to try to bring him home. She finally reached him in a phone call, and he refused her pleas to return from Syria, said Assistant US Attorneys Shane Harrigan and Caroline Han.
Before Mohallim left, he gave Bashir access to an email account that he and the other fighters were using to communicate in secret: [email protected]
The friends would write draft emails to one another — fighters would update their movements in Syria, describe exciting battles and urge fellow Muslims to join them, while those in the US would write letters of support and ask about logistics in getting there, according to evidence presented in court.
The emails used code words, often basketball and football terms, to speak of battle and jihad. “A good three point shot” was expert marksmanship and “skills on da court” were battle skills, Bashir testified.
Marchello McCain was one of the people on that email chain, Bashir testified, writing under the nickname “Vicious” and also being referred to as “Jabril.”
In one email draft, Marchello wrote to “Phish” about their duty to join their friends: “I know that you know we missing out on all the rewards and blessings akhi
(brother)… We supposed to be with them and we need to make the preparation to get to them ASAP,” according to the evidence.
Marchello also allegedly asked his friends already in Syria if it was safe to bring his wife, who was pregnant at the time, plus their other child: “is there other sisters there. I hear there is a lot of sisters from the (European Union)” read one message. He also wrote his wife was willing to go: “She would rather be there then here cuz she know how grimy these devil worshippers are and she knows what plans they have for the mumineen
(faithful believers of Islam).”
One of the fighters asked if Marchello’s wife had any friends who might be willing to travel to Syria and marry him, but Marchello allegedly shot the idea down quickly, saying he didn’t want anyone to tip off law enforcement about their travels: “About the friend situation: you already know that not too many people see things the way they are and they are probably gonna say we crazy for going in the first place.”
Douglas McCain, too, wanted his wife with him in Syria. In a WhatsApp message with his wife the summer of 2014, he wrote: “I have to send for you and bring you to the islamic state … it is the khilaafah said we must bring our family under the islamic state … woman I am in jihad … bombs go off in the everyday … Kids are dying here.”
When they discussed her travel there, she told Douglas, “I thought I was leaving with Jibril (Marchello)” and he responded “he (Marchello) needs to come by himself,” according to court documents.
Even Bashir made an attempt to join his cousins and friends, but his travel plans were foiled as the FBI caught on and other youth in Minnesota were getting arrested. He eventually turned into a cooperator and worked as an informant, testifying against six friends on terrorism-related charges.
Douglas, 33, died in August 2014 fighting in a battle against the Free Syrian Army. That November, the Karie brothers and Mohallim were also killed.
The FBI came knocking on Marchello’s door soon after his brother’s death. In many interviews, he lied about his brother’s reason for travel and denied any personal involvement.
He was arrested months later, in January 2015, on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms. Social media showed he had shot at a San Diego firing range three weeks before Douglas’s departure, and a raid of his apartment, garage and a storage unit turned up multiple firearms, including a stolen gun, and body armor, as well as drug sales paraphernalia dirtied with traces of marijuana and methamphetamine, authorities said.
Marchello is prohibited from possessing guns following a 2005 conviction in Minnesota. The crime involved Marchello firing several shots at two employees of a fitness center who had asked him and his friends to leave, according to records.
He ultimately pleaded guilty to the gun, ammunition and body armor possession charges and to three lies, but maintains that he thought his brother was traveling to Syria to fight against the country’s dictator, not for terrorists and certainly not for the Islamic State.
“… Terrorists are supposed to be people at war with Western governments and the United States. That is simply not true of Douglas McCain nor Marchello McCain,” said Marchello’s attorney, David Zugman, in sentencing papers. “They had no intention of taking up arms against the US or committing gruesome acts to usher in the 12th Imam. Our best defense against the terrorists is the superiority of our rule of law. Those rules require that we not fight the irrational with the irrational. This is a war of ideas and this Court has the chance to show that ours are better.”
In a letter to the judge, Marchello’s mother describes her son as sweet, hardworking, caring and “not the monster the news say he is.”
Marchello turned to his mother at the end of the hearing Friday and apologized to her and vowed to move on with his life.
Zugman is expected to appeal the sentence.
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