Abstract: Bryant Neal Viñas was the first American to be recruited into al-Qa`ida after 9/11. This is the first time he is writing about his experiences, and he does so in conjunction with Mitchell Silber, who supervised analysis and investigation of his case at the NYPD Intelligence Division. It is their hope that this case study provides insights into and understanding of the ongoing issue of Western foreign fighters. During his time in the Afghan-Pakistan border region between 2007-2008, Viñas came into contact with a variety of jihadi groups, was trained by al-Qa`ida, and spent time with several of the group’s most senior figures. After his arrest, Viñas immediately started cooperating with U.S. authorities and contributed significantly to the near destruction of al-Qa`ida in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Six years after the attacks of 9/11, on September 10, 2007, Bryant Neal Viñas, a 24-year-old American, departed the United States with the express intention of joining a Sunni fighting group in Afghanistan and the outside hope of joining al-Qa`ida. One of the most important influences on his fateful decision to travel to the badlands of North Waziristan was Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda by a Belgian of Moroccan descent, Omar Nasiri.1 The book, published in 2006, read like a John le Carré novel and provided a gripping account of Nasiri’s adventures as a secret agent working for European intelligence services and his infiltration of al-Qa`ida’s Afghan training camps. For Viñas, at a crossroads in his life, living in suburban Long Island and already an avowed risk taker, attempting to join al-Qa`ida to follow in Nasiri’s footsteps was the challenge he sought.2

The relevance and utility in analyzing Bryant Neal Viñas in 2018 is that he was an early harbinger of the wave of Westerners, including Americans, who would later be attracted to a wide spectrum of jihadi movements and destinations overseas, which would include Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and most recently and with the most frequency, Syria-Iraq, where 69 Americans have traveled to since 2011.3 Viñas is a case study of what life was like as a soldier in al-Qa`ida’s jihadi army. At the time Viñas joined the group, the phenomenon was so new that the terminology ‘foreign fighter’ did not exist, networking happened in person rather than over encrypted communications, and al-Qa`ida was the only global jihadi group.

Yet, the case is important for analysis because Bryant Neal Viñas was able to join al-Qa`ida, receive paramilitary training, meet the members of the organization’s inner sanctum, participate in set piece attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and even discuss potential terrorist plots against New York City.

After his capture, Viñas continued to follow Nasiri’s path and became one of the most valuable intelligence assets for the West against al-Qa`ida. In fact, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Richard Tucker, representing the government, told the judge at his sentencing, “to say that the defendant provided substantial assistance to the government is an understatement. [Viñas was the] single most valuable cooperating witness about Qaeda activities spanning his time in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”4

Mitchell Silber, the co-author of this article, was Director of Intelligence Analysis at the NYPD during the time of Viñas’ travel abroad and subsequent early years of his incarceration. With access to his debriefings and their results, he submits that based on the critical insights and tactical intelligence Viñas provided about al-Qa`ida’s operations, Viñas changed from an agent of al-Qa`ida to a devastating instrument of al-Qa`ida Core’s destruction.5

Viñas was born in Queens in 1982 and raised in Medford, Long Island. Although he was raised Catholic, he did not attend church regularly. There was turmoil at home, and his parents, both of South American descent, ultimately divorced. Viñas had not been a practicing Christian for many years when he was exposed to and intrigued by Islam through a friend in 2000 during his senior year in high school. Viñas considered converting to Islam in 2001 but then held off in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.6

Following 9/11, as a 19-year-old, Viñas, enlisted in the U.S. Army as a petroleum supply specialist, but was discharged weeks later. He was given a Chapter 11 discharge—failure to adapt to the military. According to Viñas, he took basic training very seriously and had no problem with any of the physical challenges. However, he grew frustrated with the collective punishment that the drill sergeants meted out when other recruits, who did not take training seriously enough “screwed up repeatedly.”7

Attempting to figure out what was next for him, Viñas transitioned through a number of jobs, working as a truck driver, forklift operator, taxi cab driver, and employee at a car wash. Dangerous travel (twice to Cuba when it was still illegal for Americans) and boxing were two of his main interests. The physical exertion of boxing was a satisfying outlet for Viñas.8 In January 2004, after a few years of informally observing the traditions of Islam, including fasting for Ramadan, during an attempt to make a charity donation (zakat) at a mosque in Astoria, Queens, he met a group of parishioners and spontaneously recited the call to Islam, the shehahdah, and officially became a Muslim.9

After 2004, what began as a religious conversion and desire to find meaning in life became politicized to malign effect. By the fall of 2007 and with his departure to Pakistan, Viñas’ goal had become to die what he saw as an honorable death on the battlefield, fighting an invading army in a Muslim country, which was how he viewed U.S.-allied Western coalition forces in Afghanistan.10

Viñas notes that during that time period, “I spent a lot of time watching documentaries on U.S. foreign policy, learning about Palestinian treatment by the Israeli government, reading independent news coverage of the U.S. military-industrial complex and its relations with U.S. corporations in Iraq and Afghanistan and of the corruption that was alleged.”11 Viñas also detoured into the world of conspiracies, doing research on secret societies like the Freemasons, Illuminati, Skull and Bones, and the Bilderberg Group. “All the while, news coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan was dominant, as well as [what he saw as] the problematic actions of the Bush administration in the Middle East.”12

At a mosque in Selden, Long Island, Viñas became good friends with a young man, Ahmed Zarinni, of Afghan descent, who studied at the local Stony Brook University.13 Zarinni was part of the Islamic Thinkers Society, a New York City-based Islamist organization that was directly focused on the very issues where international politics and Islam mixed. Although Viñas considered Zarinni to be his close friend, he never joined the group and thus did not cross the FBI-NY or NYPD Intelligence Division’s radar, despite their ongoing investigations into the group.14

From religious studies, Viñas turned to political Islam for an appropriate response to what he viewed as America’s war on Islam and began to study where and how military jihad was perceived to be a legitimate response. Not surprisingly, he turned to where so many English-speaking Westerners subsequently have: the audio sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki. If jihad and defense of Muslim lands was obligatory on all Muslims, then it was time for a new challenge and adventure, he thought. Viñas had already successfully circumvented U.S. law when he traveled to Cuba. As far as he was concerned, Pakistan was just another forbidden zone.15

Travel to Pakistan
Three friends in New York, of Pakistani descent, assisted Viñas, despite not being fully aware of his plans. One friend helped him plan his trip, another arranged for relatives in Lahore, Pakistan, to receive him and find him a hotel, and the third friend introduced him to an Afghan family in Lahore who, through a cousin, ultimately enabled the connection for him with the commander of a Sunni fighting group in Afghanistan.16

“My cover story to my friends in New York was that I was going to study there. I used a travel agency that a friend told me about, which took care of the visa process, and I bought a round-trip ticket to hide my one-way intentions. I then made plans to meet up with my friend from New York who was in Lahore. There would be no mention of ‘J,’ or jihad, until I was there. Didn’t want to scare him off.”17 His plan, utilizing Inside the Jihad as his playbook, was, “I would eventually try to find a madrassa, which is an Islamic school, and eventually befriend a local Pashtun, hoping that that person would eventually have contacts with militants to go into Afghanistan.”18

Viñas departed New York City on September 10, 2007, leaving from JFK airport and flying to Abu Dhabi and then to Lahore, Pakistan. He chose Lahore as his point of entry with a specific idea in mind. “I landed in Lahore and went to the hotel to wait for my friend to arrive. My plan was to not fly directly into Peshawar or Islamabad where I might be more likely to be suspected, hence Lahore.”19

Getting into the Fight
Upon arriving in Lahore, Viñas found a place to stay and almost immediately tried a couple times to make connections to get into the fight in Afghanistan, but he was unsuccessful. “Then, through my friend, I met an Afghan family in Lahore that had a cousin, named ‘F’ who took me to Peshawar. He introduced me to another person (and there were five introductions in total) before I was ultimately able to connect with and get into the Shah-Shab group, which turned out to be a Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)- and Taliban-associated group that had fought E.U., NATO, and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. So, after about a week and half of being in country, I had joined a Sunni jihadist fighting group.”20

As Viñas notes, “it was an ISI-affiliated group, and many of its members had been trained by Lashkar-e-Taiba. These were youngsters with religious intentions that the Pak government used to do their ‘dirty work’. Some had combat experience from Kashmir. This group was focused on Kunar Province in Afghanistan. They wanted to destabilize Kunar to prevent a dam from being built on a river that flows from Kunar into Pakistan. I didn’t realize that they had ISI connections when I joined. I would have not have joined them if I had known that.”21

According to Viñas, the role that Pakistani ISI plays in the fight in Afghanistan against U.S and NATO forces cannot be overstated. “They have a role all throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. Everyone there knows it. They watch the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have informants everywhere. And they are taking advantage of America. U.S. aid to Pakistan is being used to train young religious Pakistani militants to go into Afghanistan to fight and kill U.S. soldiers, and American officials know it.”22

First Combat
“At the end of September [2007], about two weeks after arriving in Pakistan, I crossed into Afghanistan from the Mohmand Agency, a district along the Afghan border north of Peshawar with [a] group of about 10 to 20 men. There was one European among the group, a Dutch guy. Crossing the border there was the most physically demanding thing that I ever did in my life because of the steepness of the climb and altitude.”23

This was all part of an operation to attack one American and one Afghan base in Afghanistan. “We divided our men into two squads. Communications up until then had been in person amongst each other, but for the operation, the senior guys used cell phones with long antennae and walkie-talkies. A group of us would cross the mountains to the Afghanistan border. We would go to Kunar Province. One group would splinter off and fight an Afghan base; another group would go and set up a mortar attack for a U.S. base. The first team led a small-arms ground attack with guns and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) against the Afghan base, and a second group, which I was in, planned to climb the mountains and stockpile ammunition (mortar) at a selected meeting point to launch a second attack on the American base. However, our second squad ultimately decided not to launch the attack because American planes were circulating over the region, and we were fearful of being attacked and wiped out.”24 So, Viñas and the Shah-Shab group returned to Pakistan. “Going on a mission had been such a relief from the terrible boredom, but in the end, I was disappointed that the operation was unsuccessful.”25 However, his group was fully intact; nobody was killed or injured during the mission.26

After the return from the Mohmand Agency in Pakistan to Peshawar, Viñas was asked to become a candidate for a suicide bombing by a member of the group called ‘C.’ Viñas accepted the mission because “I was having a difficult time with the altitude. I was getting very sick, so I felt that it would be easier to do a martyrdom operation. Also, then you would be considered a martyr. That’s the highest, most honorable death in jihad.”27 However, “I was told a phony reason that I didn’t have enough religious training and knowledge to go on suicide operations.” He was subsequently sent to receive more “religious knowledge” at a madrassa linked to Shah Shab’s group in Peshawar.28

Despite Viñas’ attendance of the madrassa, Shah Shab and his associate, Shaikh Ameenullah, continued to tell him that he would still need more religious experience before he could become a suicide bomber. Viñas sensed that he was being manipulated and ultimately left the madrassa. “I later learned that I was being used like a mascot—the Shah Shab people would show me off and raise money saying that they were taking care of me.”29

Nevertheless, Viñas stayed in that group’s system and went to another village under the care of a young man in his 20s named Khattab. “I was supposed to join yet another madrassa in Swat, but the day before I was supposed to leave, it was attacked by the Pakistani military. So I was stuck with Khattab.”30

Viñas vented his frustrations to Khattab about not going on other operations. After weeks of inactivity, Khattab told Viñas that he would advocate for him, and the two men traveled back to the Mohmand Agency base to try to go on an operation. But a senior leader stopped him, saying, again, that he wasn’t trained enough.31 Despite telling the senior commander in front of other fighters that he was ready to train right then and there for as long as it would take, it never happened. Meanwhile, Khattab, who was permitted to go on an operation, traveled into Afghanistan and then came out to find Viñas wasting time in Mohmand, “still doing nothing.” Khattab picked him up, and they left for Peshawar.32 “The only thing I learned there, with that commander, was how to disassemble and re-assemble a Russian Takarov pistol. That was it.”33

Upon his return to Peshawar, Viñas sought to stay over at a madrassa. However, due to the school season, they had no space for him. He did meet a student, though, who offered to provide him temporary housing, and through that connection, Viñas reconnected with a man he had met during his travels with Khattab. This man, Huzayfa, offered to introduce him to a Pakistani Pashtun in his late 20s named Saleem who had a different fighting group. Meanwhile, in December 2007, Viñas had his smallest toe amputated on his right foot from a fungal infection. After he recovered, Huzayfa connected him to Saleem who was on his way out of Peshawar to Waziristan and his fighting group. Viñas left Khattab and Peshawar behind in early 2008, vowing never to return.34

Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area (John Moore/Getty Images)

Getting to al-Qa`ida
Once in Waziristan, he and Saleem stayed at a safe house for a few days, where he met some of Saleem’s Arab fighters. Among them was a man who would become one of his closest friends, “Zubair Kuwaiti.” Viñas joined Saleem’s group, which was composed of about 10 to 20 fighters.35 According to Viñas, “he [Saleem] took me under his wing. And he had a couple of weapons that he let me fire off. I fired off an AK-47, PK machine gun, an RPG-7, and some Soviet pistols.”36

In early January 2008, Saleem dropped Viñas off in a house in North Waziristan and told him to wait for him. He would come back, he said, to get Viñas in three months and make arrangements to take him to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to meet with his friends there and work with them on financial networking. However, during the weeks spent at the house waiting for Saleem, who ultimately could not get him into Saudi Arabia, Viñas crossed paths with some Arab fighters who he had met before. They were ‘S’ from Yemen, ‘I’ from Yemen, ‘AR’ from Yemen, and ‘T’ from Saudi Arabia. They asked about his activities, and after Viñas explained his situation and his goals, they offered to get them into their group.37

In late March, Zubair Kuwaiti took him to meet an older Tunisian man, Haji Sabir, who spoke Italian and therefore could converse with Viñas, who spoke Spanish, which was a pleasant surprise for Viñas. Not long afterward, Haji Sabir recommended Viñas for paramilitary training, and Viñas headed to a house near Miram Shah in Waziristan. There, training alongside another Kuwaiti, “I asked [this second Kuwaiti] what group this was. The Kuwaiti told me that the group that he was actually in now was al-Qa`ida. Up until that moment, I had had no idea it was al-Qa`ida.” This was around March 2008, and soon afterward, Viñas began his own training with al Qa`ida.38

Joining al-Qa`ida (Informally)
The informality of joining al-Qa`ida is something that many terrorist analysts and law enforcement personnel have struggled with understanding. However, as Viñas describes the process, “the majority of brothers who went to Pakistan to fight alongside or with al-Qa`ida started their indoctrination in Waziristan. The fighters filled in forms that identified their family members, adopted noms de guerre or kunyas, and handed over their forms of identification to al-Qa`ida. Each fighter surrendered their passport since it [is] better not to have one in the event of being interrogated by the police.”39

Moreover, Viñas noted that “there was no ceremony or contract to join al-Qa`ida. Certain figures asserted their allegiance to al-Qa`ida or UBL [Usama bin Ladin], but many did not do so and were part of the organization all the same.” He added, “for example, I never had to go through any type of ritual or test to prove myself to get into AQ. You did need someone to vouch for you, and the word of Haji Sabr, [the] older Tunisian, was sufficient reference for me.”40

After his capture and arrest, Viñas notes that, “U.S. authorities, including the JTTF, had a difficult time understanding and accepting this. They had the mentality of looking like AQ as a gang or organized crime family. I had to educate them that AQ is not like that. This preconceived notion of al-Qa`ida made it difficult for the JTTF members to understand how I was able to just make it into AQ like that. I never swore allegiance or bay`a to anyone in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Maybe if you wanted to rise in the ranks, that vow of loyalty might be necessary, but for me, who was content in being a regular fighter, it was not necessary.”41

For al-Qa`ida, it was what you did, rather than an oath, that mattered. “Once a brother had joined a combat organization like al-Qa`ida, he was totally committed. What characterized you being an al-Qa`ida member was the fact you followed orders given to you by the leaders, you had undergone al-Qa`ida supervised training, had a weapon provided by al-Qa`ida, and lived in a house with other members who had undergone the same process,” notes Viñas.42

Al-Qa`ida Training
Between March 2008 and July 2008, Viñas took three mandatory al-Qa`ida training courses—basic training, explosives theory, and projectile weapons theory. Each class comprised of 10 to 20 students and an instructor.43

The first course resembled a traditional basic training course boot camp, with push-ups as penalties for infractions, regular guard duty assignments, and classroom sessions. However, the training was conducted indoors in order to shield the recruits from observation by drones. As Viñas notes, “the mudbrick house was big enough to accommodate about 20 people. [The] walls were made out of mud, there’s no carpet, there’s no wood floors. Just mud, dry mud. The roof is made out of tree branches.”44

The instructor used a dry erase board, and he taught Viñas and his group how to take apart, clean, and reassemble AK-47 rifles, PKs (a 7.62x54mm general-purpose machine gun designed in the Soviet Union), rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, heavy machine guns, and handguns. Students spent several hours on each weapon, learning their history, capacity, and characteristics. The lessons also included day- and night-navigation training and covered basic theory of explosives and use of heavier weaponry. There were some outdoors demonstrations of C3 and C4 explosives, and on the last day of the course, Viñas and his fellow trainees fired the AK-47, PK machine gun, and pistols as well as threw grenades. Some students were allowed to shoot RPG-7s and a Soviet-type RPG weapon.45

The second course, which also took place inside a mudbrick house, covered the theory and techniques of explosives. It lasted 15 days. During the training sessions, between 15 and 20 other students were trained in how to prepare and place fuses, test batteries for explosives, use voltmeters, and build circuitry for a bomb. The students became accustomed to seeing, smelling, and touching different explosives such as TNT, C3, C4, cortex, RDX, gun powder, and Semtex. However, none of the students actually built a bomb. Physically creating bombs only took place in a more advanced al-Qa`ida training session on bomb building. That said, the course also taught the students the rudiments of how to make bomb vests for suicide bombers using ball bearings, explosive material, and glue.46

When a mid-level Saudi al-Qa`ida leader, Sheikh Nasrulah, visited the class, he explained the organization’s philosophy of suicide operations. He stressed that these operations only took volunteers, and if one volunteered, he would have to expect long periods of waiting. Patience was paramount in al-Qa`ida’s philosophy around suicide operations. The 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, he reminded the students, took more than nine months to plan and execute.47

The third course also took place indoors, but in a larger mudbrick building, which one could walk around inside of. It focused on the theory of rocket-based or propelled weaponry. Viñas had been told by his friend ‘AS,’ who was ahead of him in training, that once he completed this training, “all the students would have to undergo a written examination that were kept in their personal files.” However, Viñas never saw these files.48

Viñas thought that basic training provided useful information, but the other two classes were not particularly helpful or interesting because they were too theoretical. There were other, more advanced courses that one could sign up for, but as Viñas remembers it, “some of these classes actually required tuition. The rich Arabs could afford that, which seemed unfair. Most fighters, like me, had no money.” Some of these other courses or training that al-Qa`ida made available included advanced electronics training, training for snipers, use of anti-aircraft guns, assassination, poisons, kidnapping, false documents and forgery, and advanced bombing making.49

Life in al-Qa`ida
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-Qa`ida 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-Qa`ida 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.”50

That said, training camp had been different. There had been a fixed routine. The morning started off with morning prayers, then Qur’an recitation practice, and afterward, morning exercise, breakfast, morning lessons, early afternoon prayers, lunch, afternoon lessons, break, prepare for late afternoon prayers, kitchen duty, sunset prayer, dinner (clean-up) if it was one’s turn for kitchen duty, night prayer, sleep and/or security night watch, again when it was one’s turn.51 When not in training, to pass the time during long periods of inactivity, Viñas would talk with his fellow recruits. “If I was with someone who spoke English, then I would talk with them. Because of the lack of anything productive to do, we would talk a lot about our lives before we got to Waziristan. Other than talking about our personal lives, the day was made up of praying, eating, cooking, sleeping—that is what we would do. On occasion, we would get radio signal from BBC radio, and I remember listening to Usain Bolt’s race at the Beijing Olympics, news about the 2008 Obama-McCain election campaigns, and updates on the surprising Philadelphia Phillies World Series victory.” The most surprising part of the experience, Viñas says, was seeing how rich Arabs would choose to live this uncomfortable life in no man’s land as opposed to the life of luxury they could be living back in the world.52

One of Viñas’ best friends was a Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent, Hicham Zrioul. The two stayed in the same house and would take walks in the mountains nearby and talk. In Belgium, Zrioul had been a taxi driver, part-time imam, and fast-food chain worker. Back home, he had a wife and three children, whom he told Viñas he missed. Nevertheless, Zrioul took lessons on how to build circuit boards that could be used for improvised electronic devices and suicide jackets, and on one occasion, he spoke about the merits of attacks that would foreshadow the Islamic State attacks of 2015-2016 in Belgium and France. Zrioul discussed the merits of an attack on the Belgian underground (metro) because it was poorly protected as well as an attack on a European soccer stadium, but he did not have any specific plans or details for these plots.53

A Soldier in al-Qa`ida’s Army
Following the completion of his training in July 2008, Viñas was qualified to participate in al-Qa`ida military operations. He and his fellow recruits then spent time waiting in Waziristan for orders of deployment. The first opportunity arose in September 2008. Viñas’ group of fighters were notified that they would participate in missile attacks against NATO and Afghan bases. The orders originated from the military head of al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an Egyptian known as Mustafa Abu al-Yazid. Al-Yazid, who was in his 50s, was the key intermediary between al-Qa`ida and the Afghan Taliban, and was “third in command” in al-Qa`ida. He had been one of al-Qa`ida’s founding members and had direct access to both Usama bin Ladin and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar.54

As Viñas remembers clearly, it was toward the end of Ramadan 2008, on orders from Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, that Viñas left the town he had been in and joined another group of fighters led by Abu Yahya al-Libi at an assembly point near the Afghan border.55 Al-Libi was a Libyan, formerly a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who had traveled to Afghanistan almost two decades earlier. He served as al-Qa`ida’s top military commander for the Pakistan-Afghan region and, thus, was Viñas’ emir.56 Viñas’ fighting group’s mission was to accompany this other group of al-Qa`ida fighters and launch a rocket attack against an American base in Afghanistan.57 The base, U.S. Forward Operating Base Tillman, had been named after Pat Tillman, the former NFL Arizona Cardinals safety who had joined the U.S. Army in the wake of 9/11 and died near that area in a friendly-fire event.58

“I was part of a group that was to launch Hawk 20 rockets from Pakistan across into Afghanistan at a U.S. base. The first time that I went [out], our spotter was not answering his radio so we couldn’t launch any that day. But we went back a second day, and we were able to launch four rockets. However, the operation was a failure.59 The first attack was not launched because of radio communications problems, and the second attack, which involved firing rockets, didn’t reach the base. They had been fired from the Pakistani side of the border.” Nevertheless, Viñas had earned his bona fides as an experienced al-Qa`ida fighter.60

It is worth acknowledging here that Viñas’ deployment to the frontlines might surprise some observers since it might be expected that a Western recruit who showed up on al-Qa`ida’s doorstep and was willing to serve as a suicide bomber would be an ideal potential external operations attacker for the group and not somebody who might be sacrificed in a traditional combat role. In fact, it might be expected that al-Qa`ida would to try to ‘save’ someone like Viñas for an operation back in the West. Certainly, al-Qa`ida did try and did succeed in ‘turning around’ various volunteer Western travel groups like several of the 2005 London (July 7, 2005, and July 21, 2005) bombers as well as the 2009 Zazi New York City subway plotters. However, the Viñas case shows that not all Western recruits were channeled toward launching attacks back in the West. From Viñas’ account, one would only participate in international operations if one volunteered.61 The takeaway here, applicable still to this day, is that not every foreign fighter is necessarily going to be groomed to become an attack operative in the West.

Despite the operation’s failure to achieve its aims, Viñas gained new status as an American who had proved himself willing to go into battle under the flag of al-Qa`ida and garnered increased attention from senior leadership of the organization. Separately, he met briefly with both commanders from the failed attack, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid and Abu Yahya al-Libi, as well as the emir for external operations, Saleh al-Somali, and another senior ranking member of al-Qa’ida, Younis al-Mauritani.62 According to Viñas, he met al-Qa`ida’s number three, al-Yazid, when he sought, but did not initially receive permission to send money to his girlfriend in Cuba via Western Union. There had been security concerns expressed by senior al-Qa`ida leaders, and it would take al-Yazid’s approval for it to be allowed.63 Viñas’ first meeting with al-Yazid was a success, and with al-Yazid’s permission, he was allowed to go to Peshawar to send money to his girlfriend in Cuba via Western Union.64

Viñas’ second meeting with al-Yazid was more fortuitous than it was planned. Viñas was in the town of Dagon in North Waziristan to pick up medicine for a stomach ailment when he heard that al-Yazid was coming to the guest house near where he was staying. Subsequently, Viñas received an impromptu invitation to join him for dinner. Viñas’ memory of al-Yazid was that he seemed like a “sweet old man.”65

When Viñas met Abu Yahya al-Libi, his emir, the Libyan was disappointed that Viñas’ Arabic was not better. Nevertheless, Viñas remembers it was a special honor to meet him as he had legendary status because of his breakout from the U.S. detention facility at Bagram in 2005.66

“The first time I met Saleh al-Somali, the emir of external operations for al Qa`ida, I didn’t even know who he was. We were both at a safe house that had the nickname ‘the airport’ because it was a house that we used as a transit point. I shook his hand and greeted him, but that was it.”67 The next time Viñas saw him was at a dinner. “He was trying to convince me to eat the food, and I didn’t want to because I was recovering from another stomach problem. Moreover, he had been the one interfering in my plans to try to go back to Peshawar to send money. So, I didn’t like him.”68

Plots vs. the West
It was during the late summer of 2008, in Pakistan, after the failed mission to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan, that despite his lack of interest in international operations, Viñas had detailed conversations with a key leader of al-Qa`ida about potential terrorist attacks on the West, including the United States. It was there that he had the infamous Long Island Rail Road discussion.69 What triggered the discussion and Viñas’ change of heart from just wanting to fight defensive jihad to contemplating an attack on his hometown was a U.S. drone strike. “While traveling with Saleem in Waziristan, I had accompanied him to a short meeting at an orphanage. Sometime later, that orphanage was struck and destroyed in a drone strike. That desensitized me.”70

The idea of the attack on the Long Island Rail Road was never more than a theoretical, ‘campfire plot’ discussed inside an al-Qa`ida safe house during the dinner with Younis al-Mauritani, a senior al Qa`ida operative who aspired to be the next “emir of external operations,” a role held at that time by Saleh al-Somali.71 As Viñas notes, “it was only at the talking stage. I was captured not long after that, and so was Younis.72 To my knowledge, it never got put into motion.”73 Nevertheless, the fact that the conversation was conducted with al-Mauritani, a senior al-Qa`ida leader who had a supervisory role in al-Qa`ida’s external operations until 2011, made the discussion an issue of grave concern to the U.S. government.74 Before his capture, al-Mauritani was believed to be involved in operational planning for “a Mumbai-style” plot in Europe.75

In court in 2012, Viñas testified, “I drew a map of Long Island and I explained to him [al-Mauritani] that all the trains, all the train tracks going into Manhattan merged into one tunnel, and he felt that the best attack plan would be to have a martyrdom operation conducted while the train was still inside the tunnel to damage the tunnel. If the tunnel was damaged it would cause a very big economic hit to New York.” Viñas was not expected to take part in the attack, but would serve as an advisor to al-Mauritani.76

The only other significant external plotting discussions Viñas was aware of involved a Westerner called ‘A’ who was a Moroccan born in France, came from a rich family, and lived near the Swiss border near the town where Evian water is produced. ‘A’’s intention was to wage jihad against the E.U., NATO, and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. However, ‘A’ also signed up for international operations training, which lasted for several days and was overseen by ‘AH.’ The subject of the course had been how to organize attacks, recruit, and set up terrorist cells outside of Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, ultimately ‘A’ turned down the opportunity to participate in an external operation because he preferred to fight in Afghanistan. Viñas did not know anyone who had been sent outside of Afghanistan or Pakistan to participate in al-Qa`ida’s international operations.77

Capture and Turning Against al-Qa`ida
Viñas stayed at the frontier until October 2008, when he decided to return to Peshawar to find a wife and was arrested soon afterward. As Viñas notes, “between the boredom, cold, and end of the fighting season, it made sense to go and try and find a wife. And I had a friend living in Peshawar, and I asked him if I could spend the winter there, and also to ask him if he could help me find a wife.”78

Following his arrest by Pakistani police almost immediately after arriving in Peshawar, which Viñas ascribes to the Pakistani ISI, he was turned over to U.S. law enforcement. “At that point, I knew I was in deep trouble, and I decided to cooperate with U.S. authorities.”79 He disclosed a variety of important time-sensitive and tactical pieces of intelligence, including the discussion of the idea of a plot against the Long Island Rail Road, the identities of people living in New York who he thought would be of interest to the FBI, how he had joined al-Qa`ida as well as its structure, communications systems, operational planning, training, and tactics.80 Moreover, despite being only an ‘aspirational’ plot, Viñas’ warning of a potential threat against Long Island commuter trains triggered a public warning during that Thanksgiving and subsequent weekend.81

His former comrades-in-arms felt the effects of his decision to turn back to the American side rapidly, as C.I.A.-operated drones demolished the places where he had trained and lived. One of the potentially most vital pieces of intelligence involved his contact with the next in line to be al-Qa`ida’s chief of external operations, Younus al-Mauritani, and the chief of external operations at the time of his arrest, Saleh al-Somali.82

One of al-Somali’s deputies was a British-Pakistani named Rashid Rauf, who had been the operational manager of the thwarted 2006 plot to bring down seven North America-bound airliners over the Atlantic simultaneously and both the July 7 (successful) and July 21 (failed) 2005 London suicide bombings attack. Viñas says he did not meet Rauf.83 Nevertheless, it is unclear if there is a direct connection between Vinas’ information and the U.S. missile strike that killed the heretofore elusive Rauf in Pakistan on November 21, 2008, which was only days after Viñas had been captured and provided detailed accounts about camps and leaders. Interestingly, both al-Somali and his deputy Rauf had been directly involved in the plotting for what would become the September 2009 al-Qa’ida New York City subway plot, led by Najibullah Zazi.84

Viñas served as a valuable intelligence source for the United States and a significant number of other allied countries over the next eight years, taking part in 100 interviews, reviewing 1,000 photographs, and assisting in more than 30 law enforcement investigations.85 In the spring of 2012, he testified for the United States and helped convict a senior al-Qa`ida operative in the 2009 Zazi subway bomb plot, Adis Medunjanin. His testimony helped to establish that Medunjanin had met with al-Qa`ida’s leaders.86 At his sentencing in 2017, Viñas stood and addressed the court in Brooklyn and repented fully. “I understand that there is no excuse that would justify what I did; I accept full responsibility,” he said. “I blame no one but myself.” Furthermore, he added, “[I would like to] turn a bad thing into a good thing.”87 Among other vocational goals, Viñas told the court that he would like to be a “counterterrorism analyst.”

In May 2017, Viñas was sentenced to time served and three more months in prison and subsequent supervision. He was released in late 2017.88

The Bryant Neal Viñas story is instructive even as the wave of Western volunteers seeking to fight overseas with al-Qa`ida, and more recently the Islamic State, has subsided. Unfortunately, recent history has demonstrated that as one terrorist safe haven in an ungoverned territory loses its appeal as a destination for Western foreign fighters, another location inevitably crops up as a new field of jihad for wannabe warriors. Such has been the recent history with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.

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.

In some cases, as detailed in “The Travelers: A Statistical Profile by the GW University Program on Extremism,”89 it is a network that helps the Westerners ‘get into the fight’ overseas, and in other cases self-propelled loners who, through persistence and some luck, can very quickly win the cooperation and acceptance by foreign terrorist groups. 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.

There is also the critical role that external operations (against the West) play and the mechanism by which al-Qa`ida went about interviewing Viñas for his insight about vulnerabilities in the New York City transit system and similarly, his Belgian comrade-in-arms about Brussels. Though the intention of Westerners going overseas may be to fight the defensive jihad to protect invaded Muslim lands, many jihadi organizations—whether they be al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, or others to come—will almost inevitably, at some point, set their sights on a delivering a terrorist blow against the West and seek to use Westerners who arrived on their doorstep as a source of intelligence and potentially even as operatives to carry out that attack. In that sense, Viñas was more of an exception, given his unwillingness to participate in such an attack.90

Finally, there is the evolving understanding among Western intelligence and law enforcement agencies that terrorist ‘drop-outs’ or recently arrested Westerners can be a treasure trove of operational intelligence that, if used in a timely manner, can help to devastate an overseas terrorist organization. Viñas’ case also demonstrates how helpful it can be to rapidly win the cooperation of foreign terrorist fighters and that, despite the discomfort it provokes, offering incentives for cooperation can be worth it for both returning foreign fighters and the agencies charged with thwarting future terrorist attacks. CTC

Bryant Neal Viñas is an American citizen who traveled to Pakistan in 2007 to fight U.S. and coalition forces present in Afghanistan. He ultimately joined al-Qa`ida, received basic training from the group, participated in al-Qa`ida military operations in Afghanistan and discussed a plot to attack the Long Island Rail Road before being captured in late 2008 in Pakistan. He subsequently cooperated with the U.S. government and its allies and is considered to have been one of the most prized sources of actionable intelligence against al-Qa`ida. He recently completed his prison sentence for his actions.

Mitchell D. Silber is the former Director of Intelligence Analysis at the New York City Police Department and is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s graduate School for Public and International Affairs.

[1] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[2] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[3] “The Travelers: A Statistical Profile,” GW University Program on Extremism.

[4] Transcript of Criminal Cause for Sentencing Before the Honorable Nicholas G. Garaufis, United States Senior District Judge, U.S. v. Bryant Neal Vinas, May 11, 2017, p. 11.

[5] Author’s personal experience.

[6] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018; Adam Goldman, “Service to Both Al Qaeda and U.S., With Fate Hanging in the Balance,” New York Times, May 15, 2017.

[7] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018; Goldman.

[8] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[9] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[10] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[11] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[12] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[13] Paul Cruickshank, Nic Robertson, and Ken Shiffman, “The radicalization of an all-American kid,” CNN, May 15, 2010.

[14] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018; Silber personal experience.

[15] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[16] Ibid.; Belgian court documents, “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates, July 22, 2009.

[17] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[18] Transcript of the Trial, Testimony of Bryant Neal Viñas, United States vs. Adis Medunjanain, before Honorable District Judge John Gleeson, United States Eastern District of New York, Brooklyn, New York, April 23, 2012.

[19] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[20] Ibid.; testimony of Bryant Neal Viñas, United States vs. Adis Medunjanain.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[23] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[24] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[25] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[26] “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[27] Testimony of Bryant Neal Viñas, United States vs. Adis Medunjanain.

[28] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[29] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[30] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[31] “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[32] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[33] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018; “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July and August 2018; “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[36] Testimony of Bryant Neal Viñas, United States vs. Adis Medunjanain.

[37] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July and August 2018; “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[38] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[39] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[40] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[41] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[42] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018; “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[43] “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[44] Testimony of Bryant Neal Viñas, United States vs. Adis Medunjanain.

[45] Ibid.; author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.; Belgian court documents, “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[49] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[50] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[51] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[52] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018; “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[53] “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[54] Frank Gardner, “Death of Mustafa Abu al-Yazid ‘setback’ for al-Qaeda,” BBC, June 1, 2010.

[55] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[56] Jason Burke, “Abu Yahya al-Libi Obituary,” Guardian, June 6, 2012.

[57] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018; “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[58] “Pat Tillman killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan,” History.com.

[59] Testimony of Bryant Neal Viñas, United States vs. Adis Medunjanain.

[60] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018; “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates.

[61] “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates; author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[62] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[63] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[64] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[65] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[66] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, May 2018.

[67] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, July 2018.

[68] Testimony of Bryant Neal Viñas, United States vs. Adis Medunjanain.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, August 2018.

[71] Ibid.; “Treasury Targets Three Senior Al-Qa’ida Leaders,” U.S. Department of Treasury, September 7, 2011.

[72] Yassin Musharbash, “The Arrest of Younis al Mauretani: On the Trail of the al-Qaida Phantom,” Spiegel Online, September 6, 2011.

[73] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[74] Musharbash.

[75] Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank, “Sources: Al Qaeda eyes more Mumbai-style attacks,” CNN, November 10, 2010.

[76] Testimony of Bryant Neal Viñas, United States vs. Adis Medunjanain.

[77] “Details of the Hicham Beyayo Case,” interview of Bryant Neal Viñas by Belgian Magistrates; author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[78] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[79] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, August 2018.

[80] Goldman; author’s personal experience.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Sebastian Rotella and Josh Meyer, “A Young American’s Journey into Al Qaeda,” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2009.

[83] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, August 2018.

[84] William K. Rashbaum and Karen Zraick, “Government Says Al Qaeda Ordered New York Bombings,” New York Times, April 23, 2010.

[85] Goldman.

[86] Testimony of Bryant Neal Viñas, United States vs. Adis Medunjanain.

[87] Ibid.

[88] Author interview, Bryant Neal Viñas, June 2018.

[89] “The Travelers: A Statistical Profile.”

[90] Raffaello Pantucci, “Manchester, New York and Oslo,” CTC Sentinel 3:8 (2010).

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up