With the reported death over the weekend of another American member of the terror group ISIS and new reports of U.S. citizens taking up arms with Kurdish forces, it seems that the allegiances of the 100-plus Americans who security officials believe have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq are as diverse and complex as the conflict itself.
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Far from a two-sided affair, numerous groups are vying for power and territory in Syria and Iraq, including the countries’ respective governments, an official al Qaeda affiliate, a powerful al Qaeda splinter group, “moderate” opposition forces, Kurdish forces and a myriad of militias everywhere in between.
As for the Americans joining up -- who are doing so in far smaller numbers than some European governments believe their own citizens are -- former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Matthew Olsen said in July, “There’s no real pattern to the people who have gone from the United States to Syria. Some are ethnic Syrians, many are not. They come from all different parts of the country.”
Olsen said then that because of the difficulties in getting good intelligence in war-torn Syria, the U.S. is “really limited” in its ability to understand what all the Americans are doing once they get there.
A spokesperson at the NCTC told ABC News last week the agency didn't have a breakdown of the American membership in each group, but said that it’s “fair to assess that Americans have gone to Syria and Iraq for a variety of reasons and linked up with a variety of groups.”
What remains then are snapshots of individuals, seen through online videos, social media and news reports, that show that aside from official militaries, Americans appear to have popped up aligned with just about everyone since the conflict began in earnest in 2011. Below is a look at some of the most high-profile cases.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)
Last week the FBI launched a new online campaign in which it asked the public to help identify Americans who had become, or planned to become, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a brutal Sunni organization designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group.
The group, once an al Qaeda affiliate before a very public falling out, has dominated headlines the past month both for its rapid takeover of territory in Iraq and Syria and for the monstrous tactics it has used in the campaign. The group has also purportedly beheaded four Western hostages -- two American journalists and two British aid workers -- on camera.
Taking advantage of the violent opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, ISIS now dominates swaths of Iraq and Syria and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared an Islamic caliphate, naming himself the leader of all Muslims. Such a declaration hasn’t sat well with al Qaeda and the two – supposedly on the same side in opposing Assad in Syria – have faced off in bloody battles of their own.
According to the FBI, there are about a dozen Americans fighting alongside ISIS in Syria, possibly including a masked man with a “North American” accent who recently appeared in an ISIS propaganda video.
Over the weekend a purported American member of ISIS, whose real name hasn’t been revealed, was said by jihadists online to have been killed in fighting. The man had been seen in a video online earlier this year saying he had lived in the U.S. for more than a decade. He initially joined up with a group affiliated with the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (see below) but defected after an argument over weapons, he said.
In August the White House confirmed the death of Chicago-born rapper Douglas McAuthur McCain, who another Syrian opposition group said had been killed fighting for ISIS.
Other Americans have been accused of trying, and failing, to join ISIS.
For example, in July 19-year-old suburban Denver woman Shannon Conley was charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Conley was arrested at Denver International Airport in April, where federal officials say she had planned to board a flight on the first leg of her journey to the Middle East after falling in love with a jihadi online. In September, she pleaded guilty to aiding ISIS.
NBC News reported another American, 44-year-old Don Morgan, got as far as Lebanon in an effort to join ISIS before eventually returning to the U.S.
Earlier this month a 19-year-old man from Illinois, Mohammed Hamzah Khan, was arrested at Chicago O’Hare airport for allegedly planning to join ISIS in Syria.
Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda in Syria
One of the most powerful jihadi opposition groups in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s official affiliate there and rival to ISIS. Other al Qaeda branches have recruited Americans before, but as the conflict in Syria grew, so did the influx of foreign fighters to al-Nusra, including Americans.
One, Florida native Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, became the first American believed to have killed himself in a suicide operation in the Syrian conflict in May. Before his death Abu-Salha, 22, recorded emotional videos explaining his motivations.
“I lived in America. I know how it is,” he says in one. “You have all the fancy amusement parks, and the restaurants and the food and all this crap and the cars. And you think you’re happy? You’re not happy. I was never happy. I was always sad and depressed. Life sucked.”
In other portions of the video Abu-Salha tears up his passport and then threatens non-believers.
“You think you’re safe where you are in America or Britain… You think you are safe, but you’re not,” he says. “We are coming for you, mark my words.”
Abu-Salha’s case was made all the more troubling by revelations that after he had been in Syria, he managed to return to the U.S. for a few weeks before heading back to the battlefields.
Earlier this month, another self-identified American jihadist in al-Nusra told CBS News he barely escaped being struck by American missiles in Syria. The fighter, who goes by the name Ibn Zubayr, said he’s been fighting with the al Qaeda group for the past two years.
“I don’t hate America. That’s my home. That’s where I grew up. I don’t have to need to hate America itself. But the government and their policies as far as the Muslim lands, that’s another story,” he said.
Kurdish People’s Protection Unit
The latest group that seems to have attracted American recruits are Kurdish militias battling ISIS in northern Iraq.
Wisconsin native Jordan Matson, 28, said recently that he wanted to fight against ISIS and settled on joining up with the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Unit) because it wasn’t listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., unlike some others in Syria.
“They [the YPG] asked me a few questions to make sure I wasn’t pro-ISIS and then they told me I could come,” Matson told USA Today. “I just flew by the seat of my pants.”
USA Today spoke to Matson, reportedly a U.S. Army veteran, as he recovered from a shrapnel wound at a hospital in northern Syria. A Facebook page that appears to belong to Matson shows him in camouflage, a headscarf and armed with an AK-47.
Matson told the newspaper he knew of at least one other American fighter who joined the Kurdish group.
Earlier this month a video appeared online featuring a man who called himself Brian Wilson from Ohio. Wilson, flanked by Kurdish fighters, told an interviewer that he came to Syria to help the YPG “in any way we can.”
He said he hadn’t seen any fighting yet, but said he was one of a “few Americans” who came to help in the fight against ISIS.
NBC News reported that one of Wilson’s relatives said he had served for the U.S. in Desert Storm.
Other Opposition Groups
FBI Director James Comey recently said that while around 100 Americans are thought to have gone to Syria at one point to fight, only around a dozen are believed to be currently fighting with terrorist groups there. That leaves plenty of room for those who have returned from the fight to the U.S., those who have been killed or, presumably, a number who have joined other opposition groups – including more moderate forces.
Perhaps the first high-profile story of an American joining the conflict in Syria was that of Eric Harroun, a former U.S. soldier who told Foreign Policy he joined up with a faction of the more moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight Syrian government forces.
Harroun voluntarily met with the FBI in Turkey during a break in his fighting, but was arrested in March 2013 upon his return to the U.S. initially accused of fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra. Harroun told FP he accidentally fell in with al-Nusra after being separated from his FSA unit during a battle and never was part of them. He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charges of conspiracy to transfer arms and was sentenced to time served.
“He’s not any terrorist, not any more than I am,” Harroun’s father, Darryl, told ABC News in September 2013.
Harroun died in his Arizona home in April. His sister posted a comment on Facebook saying he succumbed to an “accidental overdose.”
Back in 2012 The New York Times profiled 25-year-old Obaida Hitto, a Texan of Syrian descent who left his safe home to join the FSA. When he took off for a battlefield halfway around the world, Hitto – whose father would later at one time reportedly lead a Syrian opposition government – left a note to his mother: “You’ve made me what I am. But now I need to go and do what I need to do.”
Hezbollah, Pro-Assad Lebanese Militant Group Backed by Iran
In one of the more curious cases to emerge from the Syrian conflict, in March two former Los Angeles gang members appeared in videos online claiming to be fighting with not with opposition groups, but with militias aligned with Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group, in defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In the videos the two, who call themselves Creeper and Wino, say they’re “in Syria, gangbangin’.”
Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief for Counterterrorism Mike Downing told ABC News in March that though the men, an Armenian and a Latino, have lived in L.A., they are not American citizens.
As opposed to those who join extremist rebel forces, security sources told ABC News at the time it was rare for U.S. persons to be found fighting on the side of Assad in the Syrian civil war.
But at least one other American tried, according to U.S. government prosecutors. In March 22-year-old Mohammad Hamdan, a permanent U.S. resident from Michigan, was arrested and faced charges relating to his attempt to fly to Lebanon to sneak into Syria to fight on behalf of Hezbollah.
Hamdan allegedly told an undercover FBI agent the group, designated by the U.S. as a terror organization, was going to pay him $500 a month for his services. Hamdan has pleaded not guilty.
ABC News’ James Gordon Meek and Rym Momtaz contributed to this report.