What do we do with Westerners who fought on behalf of, or at least traveled to and joined, the Islamic State? Some like Hoda Muthana, who left college in Alabama to join the Islamic State in Syria, have expressed the desire to return to their native country.
As the Islamic State loses its last safe havens in eastern Syria and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic confront the question of what to do with the Western “foreign fighters,” I thought I could add my voice and unique experiences to the discussion.
I was the first American foreign fighter for Al Qaeda after Sept. 11. I was captured in Pakistan, turned over to United States law enforcement and brought back to New York.
I served time for my actions and have tried to make amends. Others can do the same and contribute to our society and the fight against Islamic radicals — and giving them that opportunity can set a powerful example for our allies and for vulnerable people across the world.
Raised on Long Island and a convert to Islam, I traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the fall of 2007 at age 24 because I was opposed to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and went to defend Muslim lands from the West. It gave me a purpose, and my intention was to fight and die a martyr’s death on the battlefield as a brave Muslim warrior.
After joining and fighting on behalf of some local fighting groups against American forces, I ultimately joined Al Qaeda. I was captured by Pakistani authorities in 2008 in Peshawar after training for months at Al Qaeda camps and participating in some military actions; I was subsequently turned over to American law enforcement and brought back to New York.
Back in America, I ultimately made the decision to turn on my former fellow jihadists and help the United States fix, find and finish Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I also provided actionable intelligence to more than a dozen coalition partners. Though the federal judge who sentenced me described my cooperation as “remarkable,” I spent more than eight and a half years in federal prison; surprisingly, I can now say I am a better person because of it.
This is where I think I can provide some advice. According to data tracked by the George Washington University Program on Extremism, as few as 59 Americans are known to have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. Moreover, President Trump has said, “The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial.”
I can say with confidence that arrest, full cooperation, contrition and the promise of rehabilitation can be a viable pathway forward for those Western foreign fighters who do not have “blood on their hands” — didn’t kill any coalition forces overseas — and are willing to admit they made mistakes and are ready to atone for them in prison.
I went before the American judicial system and accepted my guilt when it came to the terrorism charges (conspiracy to murder United States nationals, providing material support to Al Qaeda and providing expert advice and assistance) against me. I also expressed my deepest apologies to the court and said that I would like “to turn a bad thing into a good thing.”
There are citizens from the United States, Britain, Germany and France, men and women, who joined the Islamic State because of ideological fervor, the promise of adventure, the opportunity to create an Islamic utopia and a perceived religious obligation. It may be hard to see it this way, but they can be a strategic asset for the United States and our European partners.
First, like me, they may have had an “insider view” and thus intelligence on how the Islamic State works and was organized, and maybe even leads on the whereabouts of its leadership. Second, these Westerners can provide insights on how they became radicalized and turned to extremism. And third, after they have done time in prison, thought about their decisions and made some peace with themselves about the consequences, they might even be, like me, willing to speak to vulnerable youth and impart to them their hard-earned wisdom.
These former “terrorists” will have the legacy as volunteers who “went there and did it” and will be able to vouch that the experience of joining the caliphate wasn’t like the vision presented in slick videos on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Instead, joining a Sunni jihadist group overseas is a decision that you will have to live with for the rest of your life or will most likely be a quick trip with a dead end.
But they will need some hope that there is life after terrorism. My life is good evidence that there is: Approximately a year ago, coming out of prison, I was on food stamps and unemployed. I can now report that not only am I no longer on food stamps, but I have a job and am thriving in the manufacturing industry.
Moreover, I now speak to small audiences about my experiences as a former Al Qaeda member with the hope of better informing intelligence and law enforcement officials and analysts about what led me down this pathway, as well as how I deradicalized and became a contributing member of American society.
The United States does not have any type of prison rehabilitation and re-entry program to prepare “formers” for life afterward with mental health services, vocational training or educational programs, but maybe I, and the few others like me who have changed our lives, can be role models for these foreign fighters.
The United States can serve as an example for its allies — bring back the Americans who joined the Islamic State and let the American legal system do its work. After they serve the appropriate penalty under law for their actions, the country might even end up with a new counterterrorism resource.
Bryant Neal Viñas was America’s first foreign fighter for Al Qaeda after Sept. 11 and now works with a counterextremism nonprofit, Parallel Networks.