Refugee Lives: Trauma, Celebrations, and Limbo

Photo by Alex Gunn showing graffiti art by refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp.
By Michael Murphy
Staff Writer

In 2011, the Syrian Civil War placed refugees on the global stage. Amid al-Assad’s barrel bombs, The Syrian Refugee Crisis was born. Videos depicting thousands of people fleeing their homes filled the airwaves. It wasn’t the first case of forced displacement, but European countries reeled from the sudden surge of humanitarian need all the same, with each country giving a kneejerk reaction on how to handle the hundreds of thousands of newcomers fleeing violence. Meanwhile, millions fled to neighboring countries–Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan—each already struggling with the refugees of the wars in the previous century. Before long, attention turned to North Africa. Images of rubber boats filled to the brim with desperate souls being tossed on the waves of the Mediterranean became unavoidable. Finally, in 2015, the image of Alan Kurdi, a young boy whose body lay on the beach after having drowned on the journey from Turkey to Europe, drew virulent international outrage.

Continue reading “Refugee Lives: Trauma, Celebrations, and Limbo”




Bailey Marsheck
Staff Writer

Exploding car bombs and ill-advised U.S. airstrikes have demolished the streets of what was once the proud city of Mosul, ISIS’s last major stronghold in Iraq. What remains is a war zone and one that ISIS cannot claim ownership over for much longer. As the American-backed coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces inch ever closer to its goal of recapturing the city, the Islamic State’s worldwide ambitions appear headed toward an impasse. The integrity of its Northern Iraqi caliphate is waning as it lies besieged amid the narrow alleyways and IED-strewn choke points of western Mosul. Its forces have employed increasingly destructive defense tactics that threaten both the anti-ISIS coalition and the city’s own residents through its clawing and foot-dragging “scorch-the-earth” exit. Losing Mosul spells strategic and symbolic doom for the caliphate’s goal of uniting the world under extremist Muslim rule. Fitttingly, ISIS’s metaphorical sun dims exactly where the group rose to prominence two years ago: in the shadow of Mosul’s Great Mosque of Al-Nuri.
Previously known for its historical significance and as a center of learning, Mosul became the heart of the Islamic State’s spread across the Middle East when the extremist group defeated Iraqi Army ground forces in 2014 and took possession of the city. At the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in the center of Mosul, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed ISIS to be a global caliphate and installed himself as caliph. This has been subsequently followed by over two years of rule under ISIS’s extremist interpretation of sharia law. It was at this point that ISIS became a credible threat and one that fellow terrorist organizations like Boko Haram began allying themselves with. The city has served as a base for their operations, in conjunction with the caliphate’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa, from which ISIS controls its territories in the two countries. The looting of a central bank for $425 million dollars and profit from Mosul’s lucrative oil fields have helped to fund the Islamic State’s weapons purchases and recruitment of new members. When the Iraqi army began coordinating with Kurdish forces in 2016 to converge on Mosul, it took over 3 months for the coalition to recapture the eastern side of the city. The Western Mosuli campaign finally appears to be in its final stages after seven months of heavy combat, with coalition forces now pushing into the last occupied districts. Iraqi Lt Gen Othman al-Ghanim recently predicted that the coalition could completely overtake the city in a matter of days.

U.S. forces provide artillery support in the coalition’s fight against ISIS

Despite the recent positive developments, ISIS saw its destructive agenda completed and found a surprising ally through the questionable actions of the U.S. military. On March 17, a U.S. airstrike allegedly decimated buildings in hopes of helping coalition forces oust ISIS from its cover within the city. Over 150 civilians were killed in a single strike, making it one of the most fatal in U.S. history in terms of civilian casualties. Such casualties caused by U.S. intervention in the Middle East have shown time and time again to breed further extremism, feeding directly into ISIS’s anti-Western rhetoric and call to arms. There were never official designations over what caused the building containing these civilians to collapse, but U.S. military forensic units have strong conflicts of interests in investigating their own actions. Some within the U.S. defense sphere blame ISIS for blowing up the building and herding civilians inside in order to frame American forces. Indeed, ISIS has trapped civilians inside buildings to deter or incriminate American air support since then, but the anti-ISIS coalition is now wise to the ploy. Beyond the threat of U.S. bombings, the lives of common citizens are further endangered by ISIS’s guerilla tactics like the use of humans shields and the holding of civilian hostages. Aid to the city can scarcely get in without the threat of appropriation by ISIS. Additionally, the acceptance of Mosuli refugees runs the risk of harboring fleeing militants in disguise.

The offensive has been a tactical nightmare for the allied coalition. ISIS snipers, sarin gas, incessant car bombs and an intensified media spotlight have contributed to slowing the allie’s advance in Mosul to a hesitant crawl. When anti-ISIS forces reclaimed parts of the city that had been previously under the Islamic State’s control, they discovered holes created between houses and tunnels beneath the streets that allowed personnel and supplies to move without aerial detection. The allied forces also discovered a garage which specialized in outfitting vehicles for suicide bombings, altering them to be bulletproof and avoid surveillance. These factors lead to difficult decisions regarding how much time and how many soldiers’ lives the coalition is willing to give up in order to capture Mosul. The respective cost in delaying progress, however, is larger still. ISIS has become more indiscriminate with its use of force as its defenses have failed. Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin reports that civilian collateral casualties per week are, “in the hundreds with evidence showing that’s increasing.”

Without Mosul, ISIS would be without its biggest source of prestige, economic support and coordination center. Control of Mosul is central to the group’s legitimacy as Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s jumping off point. The caliphate’s official title as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” would lose both its accuracy and its sense of attraction among certain circles due to the group’s inability to control any significant portion of Iraq. This would be a major hit to ISIS’s recruitment abilities, despite being counterbalanced by potential anti-American sentiment following the mass civilian airstrike. Without a means of bringing new recruits into the organization, the group’s influence would likely dwindle and dissipate. The group already lost control of the city’s oil fields earlier in the campaign. ISIS fighters have reportedly stopped receiving payment as the organization has run out of money. The extortion of civilians within Mosul, not uncommon in similar situations, is difficult when there are battles to fight and the city is essentially starved.

Mosul’s strategic position in Northern Iraq once made it invaluable in controlling the group’s territories in Northeastern Iraq and Northwestern Syria. The city’s close proximity to the Syrian border was useful in working in tandem with ISIS’s remaining major city and new de-facto capital in Raqqa, Syria. But what was once an advantage is now a liability, as the city’s position between the northern Kurds and southern Iraqis encouraged the formation of an opposing coalition that was otherwise unlikely. The loss of Mosul will shake the group’s very identity and serve as a huge blow to ISIS’s chances of establishing the globe-encompassing Islamic state that it seeks.

As the tides continue to tip in favor of the Iraqi coalition, the focus of these forces will soon turn towards Raqqa, where another offensive is already underway. There is much speculation over when ISIS may be defeated and what the terrorist group will look like in the aftermath of this defeat, but these estimates carry wild degrees of uncertainty. Halting ISIS’s caliphate goals isn’t likely to end the threat of terrorism that occasionally penetrates the West. If anything, ISIS grows harder to deal with as its extremist foreign fighters disappear back into their native populations and sow fundamentalism back home. The relative clarity of a defined battleground will soon be lost; a reality that the coalition is already preparing for.
The next challenge after Mosul falls will be in identifying the enemy fleeing among the Mosuli refugees. Islamic State members have already begun abandoning Mosul in what appears to be an acknowledgement of defeat. They may resurface elsewhere in attempts to establish control in other parts of the Levant, land the group claims as its religious right. Increased terrorist activity may become a top priority due to a lack of having a solidified sphere of influence or they may simply refocus on resource acquisition as they regroup. What seems to be most certain, however, is that the loss of Mosul will spell the beginning of the end for ISIS’s sovereign state and will bring about the liberation of innocent civilians that have been starving and dying under ISIS’s oppressive rule.

Of the many reasons to liberate Mosul, the well-being of its people is perhaps the most compelling

Images courtesy of:
Staff Sgt. Adam Kern and the 621st Contingency Response Wing of the United States Air Force
Expert Infantry
DFID – UK Development for International Development


By Emily Deng
Staff Writer

While the average person only sees the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the news from the comfort and protection of their own national boundaries, a surprising number of foreigners are becoming more involved in the crossfire. This includes former San Diego resident Douglas McAuthur McCain.

After a bloody battle between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ISIS, the victorious FSA looted the bodies of downed ISIS fighters, unexpectedly finding $800 and an American passport in a fighter’s pocket. Identified by his distinguishable neck tattoo, White House officials confirmed the death of Douglas McAuthur McCain on August 26, 2014, a few days after the battle. McCain is the first American to die fighting for ISIS. The 33-year-old’s last place of residence was San Diego, California.

According to his Twitter feed, McCain converted to Islam ten years ago and adopted the name Duale Khalid. McCain’s tweets hinted at his increasing involvement with ISIS, which prompted surveillance from U.S. anti-terrorist investigators. On June 9, he wrote to an alleged ISIS member, “I will be joining you guys soon,” followed by a tweet the next day, “I’m with the brothers now.” A couple weeks later, he re-tweeted “It takes a warrior to understand a warrior. Pray for ISIS.” His twitter account @iamthetooth has since been taken down.

McCain’s criminal record, beginning in 2000, was spotted with nine arrests for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct and obstruction charges, but he first came to the attention of the federal government when he began associating with suspected jihadists in Minnesota. U.S. counterterrorism investigators began following McCain and believed he had joined a militant group before his death confirmed his involvement.

McCain was born in Chicago and moved to the suburbs in Minnesota where he was part of the 10 percent of African-American students at his high school. Many of his high school friends described him as a “joker” who loved basketball and PizzaHut.

He soon moved to San Diego, California where school officials confirm that he attended San Diego City College. He was an employee at the now-closed restaurant African Spice in City Heights and worshipped at Masjid Nur, the center of the black, Muslim community.

The State Department notified McCain’s family of his death the Monday following the battle. CNN interviews with McCain’s family expressed shock and confusion over McCain’s death. Their last correspondence was a week earlier through Facebook when McCain indicated he was in Turkey. His cousin Kenyata McCain claimed, “That’s not who he was. For him to be in Syria fighting for a terrorist group, that doesn’t make sense.”

In an interview with UT San Diego, an acquaintance from a shop near African Spice described McCain, “He wasn’t even very religious. He was just another American kid.” Mohamed Ali, who attended the same mosque with McCain in City Heights said, “This is just a big surprise to everybody.” Friends and family did not expect this and still do not understand how McCain got involved with ISIS.

While McCain’s family defends his upbringing as an “average American,” many Twitter responses and article comments express public outrage, calling McCain a traitor and “not a real American.” The aggressive response to McCain’s death demonstrates how many Americans continue to fear terrorist threats and are hypersensitive to individuals that deviate from their patriotic American ideal.

Amid public anger, the terrorist threat of ISIS has become a greater U.S. security concern with the beheading of American reporter James Foley. Obama has responded by expanding the air campaign against ISIS into Syria.

As an American who joined ISIS by choice rather than by captivity, McCain’s journey brings up the question – what is the significance of foreign fighters in ISIS? McCain’s death shows a shift in how ISIS and militant groups are utilizing foreign fighters. According to Richard Barrett of the security consultant Soufan Group, rather than train Americans for terrorist attacks in the United States or for propaganda purposes, ISIS now enlists them to fight in combat.

ISIS has become known for recruiting foreign fighters through social media. According to NBC News, authorities estimate 70 to 100 Americans fighting for ISIS. Americans from many backgrounds and ethnicities choose to join extremists groups abroad, making it difficult for officials to predict who is fighting for ISIS. Like McCain, most foreigners have no connection to Syria when they join; as examples, the New York Times lists half-Palestinian Moner Mohammad Abusalha from Florida who died in a suicide bomb attack and Nicole Lynn Mansfield who died with Syrian rebels.

As the first American to die fighting for ISIS, McCain’s story rippled through the country during the following week, but did not seem to make major headlines. His story was largely ignored and unknown.

However, McCain’s story shifts our understanding of ISIS as a far-away threat to one close to home in San Diego. We can no longer ignore the enormous influence of ISIS as a terrorist group solely in Syria, but as one of an increasingly international presence.

Beyond the week after his death, McCain’s story was lost in the black hole of internet news reporting, but I believe McCain provides evidence of the world’s rapid globalization and the influence of massive social movements across boundaries.

McCain’s death resonates with San Diegans and, to a larger extent, all Americans, as the news incites the fear that even an “average American” like McCain could join these far-away extremist groups. I am not recommending that we all live in fear that our neighbor will join the next extremist group, but the affairs of the greater international world should be no longer contained to what perceptions we see in the media. We have a responsibility to maintain a greater awareness of world affairs beyond our borders, as these issues are becoming increasingly globalized, transcending historical boundaries of race, religion and national identity.

Image by Kodak Agfa