On June 3, 2010, the FBI announced the arrest of Barry Walter Bujol Jr., a Texas man alleged to have volunteered to join al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Bujol, a 29-year-old African-American convert to Islam, was arrested following an investigation spanning roughly 18 months, in which a confidential informant posing as an AQAP recruiter tried to convince him to join the group, and to courier documents and supplies on its behalf.Bujol first appeared on the government’s radar in late 2008, after he had exchanged emails with the late Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al Awlaki, inquiring about how he could donate money to militant groups fighting U.S. troops abroad, and for advice about migrating to a Muslim country with his family. The government’s subsequent investigation of Bujol would culminate in his arrest in a 2010 sting operation, in which law enforcement agents apprehended him as he prepared to board a ship he believed to be headed to a meeting in Algeria with AQAP members. Following a brief bench trial in 2011, in which Bujol represented himself, he was convicted of attempted material support charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison, plus an additional five years for possession of a false government identification card.
Following his trial, questions would be raised about the role of an informant during the government’s 18-month investigation, and how much his relationship with Bujol helped put him on a path toward radicalization. As noted in a later Human Rights Watch report on excesses in U.S. terrorism prosecutions, the informant in Bujol’s case provided financial support to his family while he was incarcerated on a traffic warrant, offered him a job, and effectively became a mentor to him, providing religious guidance and Arabic language instruction. This mentorship would later culminate in the informant suggesting to Bujol that he had a duty to travel abroad and defend Muslims suffering the depredations of American foreign policy, advice that would ultimately lead to Bujol’s arrest.
Despite his relationship with the informant, Bujol would deny at trial that he had intended to go abroad to fight with AQAP. Citing previous unsuccessful attempts he had made to leave the country with his family, he would claim instead that he had simply wanted to find a way to leave the United States, “to express my discontent and displeasure with my tax dollars [supporting] foreign policy objectives that I didn’t agree with.”
Bujol is now incarcerated at Oakdale Federal Correctional Institute in Louisiana. Speaking to The Intercept from prison, Bujol offered perspective on his case, as well as some broader reflections about the relationship between religion and foreign policy in driving recruitment for militant organizations:
Tell me a little about your own life background, before your arrest.
I came out of a strict Southern Baptist household, religion was taught to me as something important from a very young age. I was always in Sunday school, and my mother made us memorize Psalms. But as I grew older, I began to question not just the doctrines, but how the actions of people around me didn’t match the Bible. I eventually stopped going to church, but it was more out of a sense of searching as opposed to me having lost all belief.
What led you to convert to Islam, and what were your experiences like afterwards?
I was working at Hewlett-Packard when I met a man there who was Muslim, and I was really impressed with his piety and his sense of faith. I talked to him, and he explained to me some of the tenets of the religion, and eventually I decided that I wanted to convert.
At first I was riding high on the euphoria of my conversion, eager to meet and greet everyone. Yet as time passed, I sort of got into a rut and started to experience some of the cultural and racial barriers that exist among immigrant Muslim communities. Overall though, I met a lot of good people. Down to earth and folksy, but not real knowledgable or able to answer the questions I began to have.
What effect did world events, particularly the wars going on during this period, have on you?
When I started seeing the carnage of things like drones, I felt like I was somehow to blame. Like my simply being here and paying taxes contributed to the deaths of innocent men, women and children. What really hurt was seeing pictures of the charred bodies of little girls. I have two small daughters. I can’t speak for how other people felt, but I suppose if they saw what I saw they’d feel how I felt.
You met the informant in your case in 2009, while you were briefly arrested for an outstanding traffic warrant. What was your relationship like with him?
I looked up to him. I had a tremendous amount of deference and respect for him. Especially when he told me he was from the holy lands and was a scholar. I felt like an infant in religion next to a giant. At the time I was trying to learn Islam and learn Arabic on my own, and I had been trying to emigrate with my family to a place we could live where religion was practiced and where life could be simpler. Given what I was seeing in the news, I also wanted to get to the bottom of the jihad question, for myself, once and for all.
You began to spend a lot of time with him after you got out of jail, talking about politics and religion. When did it start to turn into something bigger than that?
After awhile, he told me he was part of al Qaeda. But he also told me that he wouldn’t make me do anything that I didn’t want to do. I came to believe that I could go along with him, and if it got to a point where I wanted to back out, I could do so with no hard feelings from him. I also wanted to look and see what these people were about firsthand, then draw my own conclusions. I wanted to learn, but I was never committed to any group or to any plot. Looking back on it, I think from the moment [the government] introduced him to me in jail, while I was there for a few days due to the traffic warrant, their approach was all about, “How can we lock this guy up?” Instead of, “What does this guy really want?”
Do you think that it’s religion or foreign policy that causes some people to become radicalized?
I think, in my opinion, it’s both. I don’t think that someone looking at it from an Islamic perspective sees a difference. What I mean to say is, if foreign policy results in mass casualties, mayhem and poverty, well then religion says Muslims have an obligation to help the downtrodden. That then leads to more casualties as the government starts to crack down even harder on the people it sees as terrorists, some of whom were just trying to do some good for the next man, not looking to enslave the world. This to me is a never-ending cycle.
You were arrested over five years ago. What’s your impression of developments since then?
Firstly, I can see that the situation in the Middle East is the tinderbox that has finally been lit. Starting with the Arab Spring, a lot of people’s worst nightmares have become the norm. More chaos, more mayhem, more terror. I’ve heard about ISIS, and I think its the natural consequence of a foreign policy premised on punishing and torturing a problem away. It doesn’t go away, it gets worse. That group is so monstrous and brutal, that I heard even al Qaeda disavowed it.
Reflecting on my case, I think it’s ironic, and I say its ironic because I’m talking from behind prison walls for seeking answers to these questions, but I can’t see myself agreeing or even sympathizing with an organization based on terror and extortion in the name of Islam. I truly believe now that it was a blessing for me to have been incarcerated, because only God knows where or how things could have wound up. I’m just glad I was saved from what I was, a fool looking for answers with no clue about the reality of life and the reality of people in a faraway place.