The brothers grew up in Minnesota.
When news spread that former San Diego City College student Douglas McCain had died in battle in Syria — making him the first U.S. 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 U.S. 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 al-Assad’s regime and numerous rebel groups. Some of those groups were more moderate and backed by the U.S., while others were developing a reputation for extreme violence and religious views. The Karie brothers joined the latter — the Islamic State.