(CNN) — An American named Douglas McCain was killed last weekend in Syria, where he was fighting for ISIS, two U.S. officials told CNN.
The man’s uncle, Ken McCain, said that his nephew had gone to fight as a jihadi and that the U.S. State Department told the family Monday about the death.
Douglas McCain died in a battle between rival extremist groups in the suburbs of Aleppo, Syria’s once-bustling commercial capital and largest city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that monitors the conflict.
Like the U.S. officials, the group described McCain as an ISIS fighter and said he died battling al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda-linked organization that the U.S. government has blacklisted as a foreign terror organization.
McCain is not the first American to fight alongside militants in Syria, nor is he the first killed — even if he may be the first with ISIS. Attorney General Eric Holder estimated this summer that there are 7,000 foreign fighters in the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation, many from places like Europe and the United States.
Yet McCain’s death takes on added significance, and perhaps urgency, given the evolution of American strategy pertaining to ISIS and Syria.
Until now, Washington largely has limited its involvement in Syria to diplomatic efforts and supporting “moderate opposition,” as described by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey and others, that is fighting to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
That’s the same goal as ISIS, which aims to rule a caliphate, known as the Islamic State, spanning Iraq and Syria.
Even so, the United States initiated airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq this month and signaled that it might next go after the group inside Syria.
The United States has started gathering intelligence on the locations of ISIS leadership and troops in Syria, two U.S. officials told CNN. President Barack Obama has OK’d reconnaissance flights over the war-ravaged nation, according to a U.S. official.
Who was Douglas McCain?
According to his uncle, Douglas McCain’s journey to Syria began after he converted several years ago from Christianity to Islam.
The family wasn’t alarmed by his conversion, but they became aware of Facebook posts sympathetic to ISIS when he traveled to what they believed to be Turkey.
The fact that Douglas McCain became a jihadi left his family “devastated” and “just as surprised as the country,” Ken McCain said.
He described the nephew he knew as “a good person, loved his family, loved his mother, loved his faith” — the latter being a reference to the Christianity he practiced before his conversion.
U.S. counterterrorism investigators had been looking into McCain’s activities for some time before his death, one U.S. official said.
He was on a list of Americans who are believed to have joined militant groups and who would be stopped and subjected to additional scrutiny if he traveled, according to the official.
Fears over Westerners in terror groups
Syria’s civil war has been brewing for three years. In the absence of a unified rebel front, many groups — some moderate, some more secular, some extremist — have tried to fill the void.
Much of the time, they’ve battled al-Assad’s forces, though there has also been infighting among them.
Among these rebel groups, one has emerged recently in the public’s consciousness: ISIS. That’s as much due to its brazenness and viciousness as to its success. The general command for al Qaeda — itself responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — went so far as to disown ISIS and blame it for “the enormity of the disaster that afflicted the Jihad in Syria.”
Yet the group has thrived.
It’s taken more and more territory in Iraq and Syria, sometimes overrunning government forces while terrorizing civilians. ISIS’s stature grew even more internationally with the recent beheading of American journalist James Foley, a killing it videotaped and then put online.
“They are beyond just a terrorist group,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week. “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess.
“This is beyond anything we have seen, and we must prepare for everything.”
These preparations includes tracking Westerners like McCain. In addition to whatever they might do against allies and civilians in the Middle East, U.S. officials worry that they could bring their groups’ brand of terror back home.
Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said last month that gathering intelligence on such Americans fighting in Syria is “a top priority.”
“(Authorities) are taking whatever steps they can, under the law, to monitor and prevent those coming back from doing us harm,” Carlin said.
By Greg Botelho and Jim Sciutto
CNN’s Evan Perez, Raja Razek, Samira Said and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.