Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

Report: San Diego Man Killed In Syria Fighting For ISIS

August 27, 2014 1:13 p.m.

Why Americans Join Terrorist Groups


Dipak Gupta, is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science, San Diego State University

UCSD economics Professor Eli Berman is author of "Radical, Religious and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism."

Related Story: San Diego Man Killed In Syria Fighting For ISIS


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, again we learned that a man that once lived in San Diego has been named as a member of a terrorist group. A passport shows a man killed fighting with ISIS in Syria is a man identified as thirty-three-year-old Douglas MacArthur McCain, who attended San Diego City College and worked in City Heights. In the past, San Diego has served as the temporary base for two 9/11 hijackers. The late Anwar Al-Awlaki, described as the Bin Laden of the internet, served as an imam in San Diego. He was later killed in a targeted US drone attack in Yemen. And former San Diegan Jihad Mustapha is on the FBI most wanted terrorist list. He is accused of involvement with the Al-Shabaab terrorist group, and is now believed to be living somewhere in Somalia. After living and learning in the US, why are some young men drawn to the violent ideology of terrorist groups? So much so that they leave the country to join the fight? Joining to talk about this are my guests, Dipak Gupta and Eli Berman. Welcome to the program. What do we know about how Westerners become radicalized by jihadist groups?

DIPAK GUPTA: We know quite a bit about that. We have a lot of experience in dealing with people who have actually joined these groups over the years, and in fact, there is nothing new if you think about it, during the Spanish Civil War, boatloads of American volunteers went to fight in a distant land. It's the same process continuing even today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the 1930s, there was not the internet. What kind of factor does the internet play in both recruiting and radicalizing young men?

DIPAK GUPTA: It creates a virtual community for like-minded people. There are people who are seekers, there are people who are trying to do something beyond themselves. For them, to find a community, to find the cause is part of our human experience. We do all kinds of things, good or evil, based on the calling of the collect. This is one example of that, they get immersed in the community, they get to see all of the pictures of atrocities, they get radicalized, and they are told of the problem and the leaders identify a common shared enemy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If there is a sort of secret mentality, and altruistic motivation to join and oppressed peoples fight, one would think the more radical and violent a group is, the more difficult it would need to recruit followers, but that is not the case, is it?

DIPAK GUPTA: It is the case, because otherwise, you might have seen a lot more people joining the jihad group, rather than taking the ice bucket challenge. If the punishment and consequences of joining a group is less, then there is a natural proclivity to join that. That does not mean for everybody having the highest form of punishment is certain death is a deterrence. For them, they find fulfillment in a completely different way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What would make a seemingly average guy like Douglas want this equipment?

ELI BERMAN: I don't think he started as an average guy, but I think the main point is, there are a lot of young men, including young Muslims in the United States, Europe and all over the world, for whom the oppression of Sunni in Syria, where there is a terrible civil war going on, with absolutely atrocious treatment of individuals, for them that is a cause. It is their chance to be in For Whom the Bell Tolls. We have seen this repeatedly. We study a lot of conflicts at UCSD and SDSU. A common theme is that these groups are never short of recruits. It is common for young men, especially in their 20s, want to do something significant with their lives, and here is a chance to do it. That said, Douglas MacArthur McCain and Jihad Mustapha belonged to the fringe of the fringe of American Muslims, people that believe these acts of violence could actually have an effect on this conflict, and who want to subscribe to this approach to dealing with depression, which is terrorism.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You sort of sad you don't think he is the average head of guy, what do you mean by that?

ELI BERMAN: We know very little about this guy, and if you read press reports, they say he was a Chicago Bulls fan, he spent time in San Diego and was a student just like ours, but he also did something that is incredibly unusual. He got on a plane and made his way to Turkey, he got into Syria and got himself recruited, and all of the groups opposing the Assad regime to join, he joined the most diabolical and awful of them, the one that beheads people. So no, I don't think he started out as an average guy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You think there was something that was triggered by this radicalization on the internet?

ELI BERMAN: I'm not sure that it was the internet either, we just do not know.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Taking it away from him at the moment, how do terrorist groups use the internet? What is the recruiting message?

ELI BERMAN: I think there are maybe two things here, there is a recruiting part of this, but let me emphasize other parts of this. ISIS is winning, and that in itself is a powerful recruiting message. They are the team to join if you want to go out and be a hero. The other part is, the internet allows an individual to be a jihadist tourist, and to publicize and tell all of your friends on Twitter and is that what you're doing. You could be a hero in your own videogame, and go do it for a couple of weeks and then come home. If you survive, and most do, you could go home and have a normal life. The CIA and the FBI might keep track of you for the rest of your life, but you could do that and publicize it, everybody could see the pictures of you on your jihadi vacation. That is new. That didn't happen before, Hemingway had to go to the Spanish Civil War, and then sit down for a couple of years and write a book. It's much more immediate now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to challenge both of you on this comparison between the Spanish Civil War and going off and fighting for ISIS. The motivation that the people to go fight for the Spanish Civil War, they wanted to defend freedom. They thought they were defending their homeland in a way by keeping fascists busy in Spain. The book will become interested and motivated to help fight for a terror group know that they will be killing, and perhaps killing Americans. I think that there is a fundamental difference there, no?

DIPAK GUPTA: Really? So trying to go to Spain to kill Franco's people is not killing? Absolutely. The reason they do not see it that way, is because you are using the word terrorist group. In their minds, they are defending something, they are defending their identities, their communities, and it's interesting to look at the recruitment and people who are going over there, disproportionate numbers in their recruits come from recently converted folks into Islam. One of the things that people who have studied the terrorists up close, the captured ones, even the most villainous ones like suicide bombers, when they are interviewed, the unsuccessful ones, when they are interviewed, people find these people are not theologians, they have very little idea of their religion. They know a few keywords and hold onto those, and they act upon those in their own mind, creating an imagined community.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How could the oppression by the Shiites of the Sunnis or the Sunnis of the Shiites, how could that be a motivating factor to recruit people? This is really an esoteric split between the two Muslim sects that perhaps a recent convert not feel as strongly about.

ELI BERMAN: Actually, what we know from studying religious groups, is that recent converts are the ones that have the least information, so they have the least context in which to put statements that they get. So if somebody says those awful Shia are oppressing my people with American support, they believe it as is. They don't have the context of 1000 years of history and how this happened.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some people point to Islam itself as a radicalizing force. How are these groups using Islam to produce such a deep commitment from recruits?

DIPAK GUPTA: If you are asking the same question about forty years ago, you would have thought that people who are the most fundamentalist Muslims, they are the friends of the West. At that time, it was the nationalists like the Iranian Prime Minister who wanted to nationalize oil fields. They were the ones who are against the West, the fundamentalists, up until the formation of Al Qaeda, they were our friends. We supported them. How can we suddenly say that Islam has been fighting us, and we have been fighting them, I don't see the connection. In fact, there have been four very large waves of international terrorism before we left them together, and this is the final waves at this point. This is the time when religious fundamentalism has come to the forefront. In India, the Sikh movement started, the Christian fundamentalist movement also started, and in this case we also have the Islamic fundamentalism movement.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Eli, you write about the internal structure of terrorist groups, how they get funding and how they maintain themselves as an organization. What do we know at this point? What is known about the Islamic state of ISIS? How is that organization maintaining itself in getting funds?

ELI BERMAN: ISIS is new, and I have not studied did personally. I can tell you that ISIS is an outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda Iraq we understand well, because there captured documents, the Terrorism Center at West Point did a terrific job of bringing together scholars to work on this, and among the things we found, Al Qaeda Iraq was using the internet in another interesting way. A lot of people have said terrorism is public theater. But in the age of the internet, it's a theater that you can cideotape and post. What they would do is, they would create awful videos of blowing up mosques, and humvees, and they would post them and say look, look we are doing, give us money. That was very successful with private donors. The same people, different groups that are radicalized that you have to worry about, we have talked about individual recruits that are radicalized. More important in the scheme of things, is radicalizing eight donor base. The internet is really very useful for this, and in the old days it had to stay within the control of the media and control of people saw or did not see. Now the media is much more democratic and accessible, but any small group can get an awful blasphemous fundraising out there. This is what they do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What the US and UK are we concerned about people holding Western passports and their ability to travel back into the country and commit terrorist acts if they are the people who have been indeed radicalized by a group like ISIS. From your standpoint, is that something we should be concerned about?

ELI BERMAN: We need to be concerned, but we need to put it in context. First, for somebody who had been in San Diego, but this tragedy with a cane, for him to want to fight aside in Syria is one thing, but for him to come back and be at the hottest in San Diego is unlikely. It's unlikely, but it happened. There was a French individual who is the suspect, and most likely he shot for people in the Jewish Museum in Belgium, is unlikely, but it happens. It's also true that once these people travel, the most part, we track them. The CAA passes information to the FBI and we track them. But the French lost track of this man. You have to put it in context. To put it in context here, this ISIS have a fight to pick with us? Until a couple weeks ago, we didn't think so. ISIS was serious problem, Lebanon's problem, Iraq's problem, Turkey's problem, Jordan's problem, but the grotesque active terrorism where they went to the trouble of making sure somebody with a British accent was on YouTube, it looks as if they are trying to bait us and make the point we are the ones that are both you and we can get to you, and that, I think has changed the game in the way that our administration season and the way that the artist sees it. We're much more sensitized, is not like 9/11, but there is a hint of it in the feeling and the rhetoric used by our government.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dipak, what is your reaction to our level of concern about this?

DIPAK GUPTA: As you can surmise from what Eli is saying, it is part of human nature to feel empathy for the group that you feel is being oppressed. If you can push the right buttons, you can get a lot of support from donors, volunteers, and start a movement. You create a virtual community. The last thing that I should say, is that like everything else in life, terrorism is a risk. We can never it eliminate it. All we can do is manage it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank both of you very much.