Bryant Neal Vinas, 35, of New York is the first American believed to have joined al-Qaeda after the 9/11 terrorist attack.
In an interview published on Monday, Vinas said he joined because he was enraged at U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East, but was disappointed to find the experience “extremely boring” after his combat missions into Afghanistan were aborted and higher-ranking jihadists told him he lacked the religious qualifications to become a suicide bomber.
Vinas worked with intelligence analyst Mitchell Silber to tell his story in the pages of Sentinel, a monthly publication of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. Vinas left the Big Apple on his journey to jihad in September 2007 and was arrested by Pakistani police while moping around Peshawar to find a wife in October 2008.
He chose to cooperate with American authorities immediately and provided a great deal of sensitive information based on his conversations with al-Qaeda members, even though his time with the group largely consisted of military and religious training, a few military expeditions that did not pan out, and a good deal of waiting around for something interesting to happen.
Even though Vinas regards his stint with al-Qaeda as a bust, every step of his journey provided useful insights to investigators. He was described as the “single most valuable cooperating witness about Qaeda activities spanning his time in Afghanistan and Pakistan” at his trial. He wound up with a sentence of time served plus three months and was released after nine total years in custody in May 2017.
One of the interesting things about the Vinas saga was the remarkable ease of joining al-Qaeda and chatting up its senior operatives. He was born and raised Catholic but became attracted to Islam and effectively taught himself its traditions before formally converting at a mosque in 2004.
Vinas then became radicalized with the help of an Islamist organization in New York City called the Islamic Thinkers Society and a helping of recorded sermons from jihad guru Anwar al-Awlaki, whose tapes appear in the evidence bag after many terrorist incidents involving radicalized Westerners. He also nourished his anti-American feelings and developed his sense of transgressive privilege by making a few trips to Cuba, where he established a romantic relationship.
And then he pretty much strolled into Pakistan and hooked up with what he initially saw as a Sunni Muslim group fighting foreign invaders in Afghanistan. His plan upon departure for Pakistan involved nothing more elaborate than hanging around in madrassas until he found a militant from Afghanistan.
Eventually, his Pakistani friends in New York put him in touch with someone who knew someone who knew someone who had ties to the Taliban and Pakistan’s notorious ISI intelligence service. (Vinas has a very dim view of the ISI, charging them with “taking advantage of America” and using U.S. aid to train militants for combat against American troops in Afghanistan).
Two weeks after he hopped on a plane for Pakistan, Vinas was trudging across the border into Afghanistan on a mission to attack American soldiers. He bounced around between a few safe houses and half-hearted military training programs before getting the idea that he had been inducted into al-Qaeda. Vinas stressed that the membership process was amazingly casual and completely devoid of the rituals and oaths of allegiance he expected. At the lowest ranks of the organization, little more was required than a personal recommendation from a senior operative.
“Once a brother had joined a combat organization like al-Qaeda, he was totally committed. What characterized you being an al-Qaeda member was the fact you followed orders given to you by the leaders, you had undergone al-Qaeda supervised training, had a weapon provided by al-Qaeda, and lived in a house with other members who had undergone the same process,” he explained.
Once he formally entered service to al-Qaeda, Vinas received much better military training, with a heavy emphasis on bombs and suicide vests. He described al-Qaeda’s training academy as a veritable university of jihad, with advanced courses in subjects like electronics and forgery available only to aspiring jihadis who could afford the tuition.
Vinas found the experience frustrating and tedious, as his few combat assignments fizzled due to bad luck and poor planning. He got the impression al-Qaeda had more eager recruits than it knew what to do with:
Life in al-Qa`ida was a let-down to Viñas and not what he imagines most Westerners would expect.
“We lived in mudbrick houses, and the food was bad—mainly rice, potato stew, or okra stew. The rich Arabs had money to buy goats, sheep, and chickens, but that was about as exotic as it got.”
In addition, Viñas characterized being in al-Qaeda as “extremely boring.”
“There are days when you do absolutely nothing. There is common frustration amongst many AQ guys about the amount of inactivity. There were few operations to participate in, and even those weren’t very good so the body was not in prime fighting condition for ‘mountain fighting’ when a fighting mission appeared.”
Viñas could not understand why al-Qaeda was organized this way. “The only other option was to take classes for missions outside of Pakistan/Afghanistan, but I never knew anybody who took those or went, and I was wary to do so.”
A darkly comical interlude in Vinas’ experience came when he volunteered for action as a suicide bomber because he saw martyrdom as “the highest, most honorable death in jihad.” He was repeatedly told he lacked the Islamic religious qualifications for this honor and shipped off to madrassas for more schooling, although he thinks he was actually being paraded around the madrassas as a showpiece Western recruit by his handlers so they could raise money.
Another interesting aspect of Vinas’ experience with al-Qaeda was their pronounced lack of interest in using him for terrorist operations in the West, despite his outstanding resume for that kind of terrorist work. He became eager to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil after a U.S. drone strike destroyed an orphanage near where he was lurking in Waziristan and was ultimately able to discuss serious plans for a major attack on the Long Island rail system with a senior al-Qaeda operative. He was never quite able to obtain the green light for such an operation, although he thought he might have been getting close at the time of his capture in 2008.
Silber’s conclusions drew parallels and contrasts between Vinas’ meandering into service with al-Qaeda and the far more aggressive recruitment and deployment program run by its offshoot, the Islamic State:
Viñas’ story demonstrates how a combination of newfound identity through increased religiosity, coupled with its subsequent politicization on issues relating to Western foreign policy in the Muslim world, can be the grievances that mobilize prospective foreign fighters in the West to volunteer to fight overseas in what they view as ‘legitimate defensive jihad’ to protect Muslim lands. The Viñas case demonstrates how the push and pull factors of recruitment lead to travel in order to join a terrorist group.
Viñas linked up with al-Qa`ida hierarchy despite not having the advantages of many of those who later joined the Islamic State. Many of these later Islamic State recruits from the West were already in touch with extremists in the caliphate before traveling to Syria and Iraq and took advantage of the organized pipeline through Turkey.
Then there was life in general in a terrorist group, which Viñas found boring and the role of fate, which, as Viñas demonstrated, put him in unique locations with surprising access. This element is similar to stories from Westerners who traveled to Syria and found themselves in this guest house or that guest house or this part of the Islamic State or that part of the Islamic State based on a somewhat random set of encounters.
A disturbing conclusion that could be drawn is that both al-Qaeda and ISIS have not come close to realizing the full destructive potential of foreign recruits. Neither organization has optimized plans for inducting Western recruits, deploying them on the battlefields of the Middle East, or sending them back home to commit terrorist atrocities. If they ever do improve their procedures, they have a largely untapped well of eager homicidal terrorist manpower to draw upon.