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. 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.
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. 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.