MINNEAPOLIS — The two high-school buddies loved to shoot hoops and crack jokes with friends. They both converted to Islam in early adulthood. And both were recruited by terrorist groups to leave the United States and die for jihadist causes.
It wasn’t immediately clear how Douglas McCain and Troy Kastigar were drawn into radicalism after their initial conversion to the Muslim faith or whether they might have influenced one another along the way. But the two best friends followed similar paths and met the same end.
Both attended Robbinsdale Cooper High School in the Minneapolis suburb of New Hope. Kastigar was in the class of 1999, though he left school in February of that year without a diploma, according to school records. McCain went to Robbinsdale from 1997 to 1999, before transferring to nearby Armstrong High School. He did not graduate either.
Address records show McCain lived at Kastigar’s house from 2000 to 2001, although that could not be independently verified.
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“They were really funny guys. They were goofy. They were just always laughing, hanging out together, joking around. They were just nice,” said Alicia Adams, a former classmate who was friends with McCain and Kastigar in high school.
There was nothing in their background or behavior to “make you think they would become an extremist or a killer or anything of the sort,” she said Thursday. People who knew the pair were “trying to wrap all of our heads around it.”
U.S. officials confirmed this week that McCain, 33, was killed in Syria while fighting with the Islamic State group. Officials have said Kastigar was killed in Somalia in September 2009 while fighting with the terrorist group al-Shabab.
Anders Folk, a former federal prosecutor who handled the al-Shabab cases in Minnesota, said it’s noteworthy that two converts with no familial ties to Syria or Somalia latched on to the most extreme interpretation of Islam.
“The fact that two guys from the Midwest, from Minnesota, could both be recruited by different terrorist organizations in different foreign countries shows how effective the rhetoric is at converting certain people to the cause,” Folk said. “It also shows that the message isn’t about where you go or what country you go to, but the message is about joining the fight. And that message is resonating with young men in America.”
Both young men had minor criminal records, including charges of disorderly conduct, traffic violations and instances in which they gave false names to police officers.
The two friends were not into organized sports, but both loved basketball — McCain’s favorite team was the Chicago Bulls — and the teens were always playing at neighborhood parks and at the Y, Adams said.
Neither Kastigar nor McCain converted to Islam while in high school, Adams said. McCain’s Twitter feed included a May 14 post that said he “reverted to Islam 10 years ago” and called it the best thing to happen to him.
Adams said she had kept in touch with McCain over Facebook and through phone calls, and she last spoke with him within the past year, when he was living in San Diego. She said he was doing work in a mosque there, had traveled to Europe and had hopes of being a rapper.
McCain loved learning about Islam and “sharing his newfound faith” with anyone who would listen, but he was not radical and was respectful of others’ beliefs, Adams said.
“There was nothing at all that would make me think that this would be where he would end up.”
Kastigar, who went by the nickname Abdirahman, left Minneapolis in November 2008. A 2011 report by the GOP House Homeland Security committee says he was killed in Somalia in September 2009. He was 28.
In August 2013, al-Shabab released a video that featured Kastigar and other Minnesota men. In the nearly 40-minute video, Kastigar compared his experiences in Somalia to being in an amusement park.
“If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here; this is the real Disneyland,” he said. “You need to come here and join us and take pleasure in this fun.”
The video also showed Kastigar’s shrouded corpse.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, Kastigar’s mother, Julie, described both young men as “sort of searching.”
“I think both of them had a really strong desire to be needed and (be) of value,” she was quoted as saying.