An odd and disturbing tale of a man who was drawn into the terrorist network appears in The New York Times, raising questions about U.S. intelligence gathering. Bryant Neal Vinas went from Long Island to Pakistan in search of a wife, according to the account, and along the way received al-Qaeda training. (Meanwhile, some experts believe that Osama bin Laden has taken another wife – this time in the area where he lives, in order, perhaps to strengthen ties to the community where he is hiding out. He also has a wife in Yeman, a counterterrorism expert tells me, and he visits her occasionally.)

One of the surprising aspects about the al-Qaeda story is how little Americans knew about the group before 9/11, specially compared to the knowledge we had about our enemies during the Cold War. Back then, CIA officers hung out at cocktail parties in Berlin and Warsaw, recruiting spies, yet there were few efforts to infiltrate terrorist groups operating in the Middle East. It seemed too hard to get access. Except that it really was not, as John Walker Lindh, a California native who joined up with the Taliban, proved. The case of Vinas shows once again that becoming part of these groups is not impossible, and one wonders why the CIA has not tried harder.

There is a downside, of course, since Americans who infiltrate terrorist groups might be expected to harm innocent people as part of their membership, and as important as it is for Americans to know about these groups,
the price of the knowledge may in fact be too high.

--Tara McKelvey