American convert to Islam trained with Al Qaeda - plotted attacks on commuter trains - fought in Pakistan and Afghanistan
July 22, 2009
U.S.-born militant linked to Al Qaeda is in custody
Reporting from Washington and Patchogue, N.Y. — An American from Long Island who was captured while fighting as an Al Qaeda militant in Pakistan has pleaded guility to charges of conspiring to commit murder outside the United States and is now cooperating with authorities, according to a federal indictment and interviews with U.S. and European officials. Bryant Neal Vinas, 26, is one of only a handful of Americans known to have made the trek to Al Qaeda's secret Pakistani compounds, and his cooperation is opening a rare window onto the world of Western militants in the network's hideouts, anti-terror officials said.
Vinas has admitted to meeting Al Qaeda operations chiefs and giving them information for a potential attack on New York commuter trains, conversations that resulted in a public alert in November, said the officials, who requested anonymity because the case is ongoing. Vinas told investigators he fired rockets during a militant attack on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, the officials said. Pakistani forces captured him in November, and he is now in U.S. custody.
An indictment was unsealed today after repeated queries from the Tribune Washington Bureau in recent weeks. Until then, the case had remained a closely guarded secret at the heart of interconnected investigations in at least seven countries. "It is a massive case," said a U.S. Justice Department official.
The U.S.-born son of immigrants from Peru and Argentina, Vinas was raised a Catholic and played baseball in tidy working-class suburbs where Elks Lodges mixed with taquerias. His unlikely transformation into an Al Qaeda fighter nicknamed "Bashir el Amriki" (Bashir the American) underscores fears that other Americans followed the same route, officials said. "His background is clearly unusual," said a senior European anti-terror official. "I am not aware of other Americans who went with him or who have trained recently in [Pakistan]. ...He stands out. A Latino American is an unusual profile."
Since his capture, Vinas has been talkative and cooperative. He has provided a detailed account of his sojourn and lengthy testimony for upcoming terror trials in Europe, the officials said. In March, he gave a statement to a Belgian magistrate and investigators in New York that will be used as evidence against three jailed Belgians who admitted to training with Al Qaeda, according to European and U.S. officials. He was in custody at the time he testified, according to a European anti-terror official.
Vinas' father says he does not know where his son is today. "The FBI asked me all kinds of questions about him, but they don't tell me nothing," said his father, Juan, who lives on a cul-de-sac separated by a grove of trees from an expressway in Patchogue near the south shore of Long Island. The retired Peruvian-born engineer, 63, spoke during interviews in recent days in the home he shared with his son: a modest brick house with white siding and a statue of an angel on the lawn. Many houses in the area fly the flags of the United States and the New York Yankees.
Vinas abruptly left home in September 2007 after talking about wanting to study Islam and Arabic, his father said. A year later, after a truck bomb killed 55 people at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, FBI agents from the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed the family, relatives said. The agents told the family Vinas was in Pakistan and asked about his travels and religious conversion, saying they were checking on Americans in Pakistan after the attack, the father said. Since then, the FBI has not answered repeated calls and letters, the father said. "I think that the FBI know where he is," said Juan Vinas, a short, trim, unfailingly polite man who speaks English with a strong accent. "But they won't tell me. They don't want to tell me."
Even during the years when Osama bin Laden's Afghan camps trained thousands, U.S. recruits were scarce. Notorious converts from that era include Adam Gadahn, a fugitive propaganda chief; fellow Californian John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" serving a 20-year prison sentence; and Jose Padilla, a former street gang member convicted in 2007 of terror-related crimes after allegations of a "dirty bomb" plot were dropped. After Al Qaeda lost its Afghan sanctuary, the increasingly difficult and dangerous route to the network's new base in Pakistan has dissuaded many extremists. One of the few Americans recently accused of joining the core Al Qaeda network is Syed Hashmi, a Brooklyn College graduate who journeyed to his native Pakistan in 2003. He awaits trial on charges of providing material support to the terror network.
Vinas told investigators he arrived in December 2007 in the northwestern Pakistani badlands dominated by Al Qaeda and the Taliban, according to anti-terror officials. Despite wariness of spies and a campaign of U.S. missile strikes, he was treated well in contrast to some Western recruits who complained about being shaken down for money, anti-terror officials said. Vinas encountered someone during his radicalization who vouched for him, investigators say. "He had a good reference, so they trusted him," an anti-terror official said. In fact, Vinas admitted to meeting frontline chiefs of Al Qaeda's operations to discuss his training and potential role in the network, according to U.S. and European officials. One official described the chiefs as being "successors of Abu Laith al Libi," a top Libyan leader who was slain in an airstrike weeks after Vinas arrived.
During conversations sometime between last March and November, Vinas gave the terror chiefs "expert advice...derived from specialized knowledge of the New York transit system and Long Island Railroad, communications equipment and personnel, including himself," according to court papers. Soon after his capture, an alert was issued Nov. 25 about a "plausible but unsubstantiated" threat of an attack on a Long Island commuter train in Penn Station. Federal officials also warned that Al Qaeda terrorists had discussed targeting transit systems in and around New York City. Like other trainees, Vinas adopted aliases for security reasons, also calling himself Ibrahim, according to officials and the indictment. He underwent para-military training and participated in armed groups that went on missions near the Afghan border, according to his account to officials. He took part in an attack on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan in September, 2008, firing rockets, according to officials.
During statements to investigators, Vinas described a French trainee in Pakistan who complained that his father had reported him missing, anti-terror officials said. That detail made investigators realize that Vinas had contact last year with a group of suspects from France and Belgium, targets of an investigation driven by U.S. electronic intercepts and assisted by British, Turkish, Pakistani and Swiss authorities. Vinas also met that group's leader, Moez Garsalloui, a Tunisian married to a now-jailed Belgian ideologue, officials say.
Police arrested the three Belgians, one of whom is suspected of preparing a suicide attack, and a Frenchman after they returned to Europe late last year. But Garsalloui, who boasted in intercepted e-mails about killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is still a fugitive. Although aspiring trainees usually make the journey in groups, it's not known if Vinas traveled with others. HIS leap from Long Island to Waziristan seems even more remarkable.
Vinas grew up with his Argentine-born mother and his sister, Lina, after the parents divorced. He played baseball and hung out with friends of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, his father said. Vinas was tall, light-skinned and clean-shaven, according to his step-mother, Rosa Gutierrez. He spent time in the military but "could not continue" because of asthma, she said. His father, however, denied that he did military service. "He's a good person, really," she said. "He's really normal." Vinas could be stubborn and private, his father said. A dispute with his mother caused him to leave their well-tended stucco house in nearby Medford and move in with his father at least four years ago, relatives say. The sister said she had not had contact with Vinas in seven years. "I don't know him anymore," she said. "He's my brother and I love him but I have no contact and I don't know anything about him."
Juan Vinas said his son resisted advice that he go to college. Vinas took a few technical courses and failed to complete them, his father said. Vinas worked in nearby Smithtown, but did not say anything about his job, his father said. About a year after moving to Patchogue, Vinas began spending time away from home. He told his father he attended a mosque and community center about eight miles away in Selden, the Islamic Association of Long Island. The worshipers at the area's oldest mosque, a white wood building that used to be an Episcopalian church, are predominantly Pakistanis. The mosque president, pharmacist Nayyar Imam, does not recall Vinas. He said in an interview that he talks periodically to the FBI and Homeland Security agency and stays alert for suspicious behavior. "I keep an eye like a hawk on this place," Imam said.
On the other hand, a former FBI counter-terrorism official said suspected extremists have been identified at the mosque. "There could be a person in the mosque who has some radical thoughts and ideas who the imam knows nothing about," he said. Vinas began wearing Islamic robes and a skullcap, his father said. "He became very excited" about Islam, and immersed himself in the Koran and studying Arabic. He brought over three Pakistani friends from the mosque on one occasion. He even encouraged his father to consider converting. "He tried and tried," said Juan Vinas, who raised his children as devout Catholics. He said Bryant never explained why he liked Islam so much, except in general terms. "He said there were some differences between that and the Catholic [religion]. He said he don't believe in the saints," he said, pointing to a metallic relief of the Last Supper in his living room. "Because young people, they take to something, they go to it right away."
The father said he looked in Vinas' room several times for signs of radicalism. He says he found only computer web searches for information about Pakistan and other countries. Vinas grew increasingly reclusive and headstrong, his father said. In September 2007, the father said he noticed that Vinas hadn't used his car in a few days. He said he found his son's room empty except for some Muslim clothing. He looked for his son and asked around at the mosque without success. During the cordial FBI visits last year, the agents asked about Vinas without mentioning Al Qaeda. Juan Vinas said he showed them his son's room. The agents took a laptop computer and photos with them, according to Sifton, the lawyer. When told during the interviews about allegations that his son attended training camps, the father slumped forward. He pressed a reporter for more information. "I think so many times, is he in trouble?" he said. "I don't think he would be in trouble with like, terrorists. I think he was in Pakistan because he was excited about the religion."
Long Island Man Charged in Attack on U.S. Base in Afghanistan
By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM and SOUAD MEKHENNET
NY Times July 22, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/22/nyregion/23terror.html?hp
The man, Bryant Neal Vinas, who was arrested Peshawar, Pakistan, last November, was also charged with assisting Al Qaeda by providing "expert advice and assistance" that was "derived from specialized knowledge of the New York transit system and the Long Island Rail Road, communications equipment and personnel," according to the papers. The court papers, a criminal information charging Mr. Vinas with conspiracy and carrying out the attempted missile attack, providing material support to Al Qaeda and receiving military support from the group, did not mention a specific New York City plot involving the Long Island Rail Road.
The papers, filed by prosecutors in the office of the Brooklyn United States attorney, Benton J. Campbell, also say that he attempted the attack and received "military-type training" from and on behalf of Al Qaeda between March and August 2008. But around the time of his arrest in Pakistan in November, the federal authorities in New York issued warnings about a possible attack on mass transit.
One official said that the information about the possible attack, which the authorities described at the time as "aspirational," came from a Long Island man who had been arrested in Pakistan. The criminal information charges that Mr. Vinas, along with other people who were not named, "fired rockets at a United States military base in Afghanistan" in September 2008.
The name of Mr. Vinas's lawyer could not be immediately determined. Mr. Vinas, who converted to Islam at a mosque on Long Island, where he worked briefly as a truck driver and in a car wash, has been cooperating with European and United States counterterrorism officials since some time after his arrest, according to European and American officials. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case, said he was a key witness in two terrorism prosecutions in Europe. The cases there, in Belgium and Italy, center on two groups of French and Belgian nationals, several of whom trained in the camps, as well as on a Moroccan-born woman, Malika El Aroud, who has been accused of using the Internet to recruit the young Muslim men to train with Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Mr. Vinas, according to European officials, is expected to be a key witness in those attacks because he spent time in the training camps with the men, who officials have said were recruited through Ms. El Aroud's Web site. Ms. El Aroud, a Belgian citizen, has become one of the most prominent Internet jihadists in Europe, writing in French under the name Oum Obeyda. She began her rise to prominence as the widow of a suicide bomber. Her husband killed the anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the behest of Osama bin Laden.
New Yorker says he would have been suicide bomber
LONDON (CNN) -- A New York man who pleaded guilty in January to charges of aiding al Qaeda was ready to be a suicide bomber for the organization, but was told he needed more religious instruction, according to a document obtained by CNN on Thursday.
Bryant Neal Vinas gave an interview in March to Belgian prosecutors as part of a terrorism case there involving a cell he was associated with. CNN obtained the prosecution-prepared interview summary document from a Belgian defense attorney, and it was authenticated by both a federal prosecutor in New York and Vinas' defense attorney.
The French-language document gives a detailed picture of how Vinas traveled from New York to Pakistan and what he did while he was there.
Vinas pleaded guilty in January to charges of conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and receiving military-type training from a foreign terrorist organization, the FBI said Wednesday.
He admitted involvement in an attack on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan in September 2008, according to an indictment filed under seal and made public Wednesday. In addition, authorities said he provided al Qaeda with information about the New York transit system and the Long Island Railroad.
Vinas, 26, is an American citizen, said a source close to the investigation. He was arrested in Pakistan, the source said.
According to the document obtained Thursday, the Queens, New York-born Vinas converted from Catholicism to Islam in 2004. He hooked up with al Qaeda in Pakistan three years later, and by September 2007 was determined to wage jihad in Afghanistan, the document says.
He left New York exactly six years after al Qaeda struck the city and arrived in Lahore, a major city in eastern Pakistan, on September 12, 2007. With the help of a friend he had known in New York, who was connected in militant circles, Vinas sought out individuals in Lahore who could help connect him to jihadists fighting in Afghanistan, according to the document.
Weeks later, the document says, Vinas was in Afghanistan's Kunar province, a hotbed of the insurgency, with a group of 20 insurgents who crept up near an American combat outpost. At the last minute, they decided not to fire mortars on the base because American war planes were circling overhead, the document says.
Before launching the raid, Vinas said, recruits were required to sign a number of forms. From the document, it is not clear whether those forms constituted formal membership in al Qaeda, but Vinas stated that "it was not necessary to sign documents or take part in a ceremony to become a member of al Qaeda."
Later in the document, he was quoted as saying he succeeded in becoming a full member of al Qaeda.
Vinas then returned to Mohmand, an agency in Pakistan's tribal areas, the document says. His handlers then asked him to become a suicide bomber. He agreed, and was sent to Peshawar, Pakistan, to receive more instructions. But Vinas told investigators that his handlers decided he needed more religious instruction before he would be ready to become a suicide bomber, the document said.
After his instruction in Peshawar, Vinas said, he traveled into the mountains of Waziristan in Pakistan's tribal areas. Vinas said that during his time there he spent a lot of time with members of al Qaeda, including operatives from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, according to the document.
Between March and July 2008, Vinas said he attended three al Qaeda training courses, learning how to fire an AK-47, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and handguns. He also familiarized himself with explosives and was taught to make suicide bombing vests. At the end of his training, Vinas said, his handlers judged that he was qualified to participate in missile attacks against American, NATO and Afghan bases in Afghanistan, the document said.
In September 2008, Vinas said, he traveled to a town near the Afghan frontier where he joined a group of jihadists including al Qaeda fighters. Creeping toward the Afghan border, he said, the group fired rockets toward an American combat outpost in Afghanistan. This is the attack Vinas pleaded guilty to in January, authorities said Wednesday.
After launching the attack, Vinas spent several weeks in the mountains of Waziristan near the Afghan border. It was there, Vinas said, that he had detailed conversations with "al Qaeda chiefs," according to the document. Vinas is quoted as saying the subject of those discussions included attacks in the West, including in the United States. Vinas is not quoted in the document elaborating further.
Vinas stated that he left Pakistan's tribal areas in October 2008 and returned to Peshawar in search of a wife. That's where he was arrested a few weeks later.
Vinas is quoted in the document saying that during his stay in Pakistan he spent time with a number of Belgian and French citizens who had traveled to Pakistan's tribal areas in early 2008, and who, like Vinas, received military training there. In December 2008, several members of this group and some of their Brussels associates were arrested on their return to Europe after security services received indications they might be plotting a terrorist attack in Belgium.
Belgian magistrates wanted to question Vinas in March for this reason.
Vinas pleaded guilty on January 28 in a closed hearing, according to court documents. At the time, the case was filed naming "John Doe" as a defendant and was sealed.
The FBI's New York office would not say whether Vinas has been sentenced or comment on why the case was sealed. It said Vinas is in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.
Vinas is also known as "Ibrahim," "Bashir al-Ameriki" and "Ben Yameen al-Kandee," according to the indictment unsealed Wednesday.
In Pakistan, according to the document, Vinas said he met with the alleged leader of the Franco-Belgian cell, a Tunisian, who Belgian intelligence sources have told CNN was Moez Garsallaoui. Garsallaoui is the husband of Malika el Aroud, a Belgian woman who has been described as an "icon" of the jihadist movement because her former husband assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the head of Afghanistan's anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, two days before 9/11.
El Aroud was one of those arrested in Brussels and is awaiting trial, accused of having teamed up with her new husband to recruit Europeans to fight Jihad. In 2006, CNN interviewed Garsallaoui and El Aroud in Switzerland.
Garsallaoui, who Belgian counterterrorism sources believe is still at large in the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, boasted to other group members that he had carried out an attack on an American base in Afghanistan, firing rockets from Pakistan, according to legal documents obtained by CNN.
It is not clear whether Vinas also joined Garsallaoui on these raids.
New direction in terror fight may stem from case
Vinas provided "an intelligence gold mine" to U.S. officials, including possible information about a suspected militant who was killed in a Predator drone strike last November, says a senior law enforcement official, one of several authorities who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the case publicly. Another law enforcement official said that under questioning, the 26-year-old Vinas gradually provided a "treasure trove" of information, allowing U.S. counterterrorism officials to peer deep inside the inner workings of al-Qaida. The FBI first learned about Vinas after Pakistani police arrested him in November 2008 in Peshawar, a city teeming with Taliban militants and al-Qaida operatives along Pakistan's northwest border with Afghanistan. Vinas, born in Queens and raised as a Roman Catholic on Long Island, was turned over to the FBI.
Authorities have long been concerned about al-Qaida's interest in recruiting outsiders who can blend in easily. It was not the first time an American had gone to Pakistan for Jihad. Others had preceded him such as the imprisoned "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh and convicted terrorist Jose Padilla. At first after his capture, Vinas appeared scared and dejected. When he was brought back to the United States, an official said, he "started to turn the corner" and trust them, little by little. One of the first leads he gave investigators was admitting to his own role in helping al-Qaida plan an attack on U.S. soil. "I consulted with a senior al-Qaida leader and provided detailed information about the operation of the Long Island Rail Road system which I knew because I had ridden the railroad on many occasions," Vinas later told a judge in a secret guilty plea to terrorism charges. Vinas said the terrorists wanted to launch a bomb attack on the train system.
It was Vinas' information about those conversations, officials said, that led authorities to issue a security warning last year around the Thanksgiving holidays about a possible plot against New York City-area transit systems. Once Vinas was placed in U.S. custody, FBI agents spent a period of months conducting approximately 100 interviews with the man, a Muslim convert who spoke Arabic, Dari and Urdu. Vinas, whose father hails from Peru and his mother from Argentina, told officials he left for Pakistan in September 2007, arriving in Lahore. He made his way to Peshawar. Intelligence experts say that his terror bosses first sent him on a mission to fire missiles at a U.S. base in Afghanistan, most likely a way for them to test his loyalty. The first attack was not launched because of radio problems and the second failed to hit the base, according to Vinas. After the botched mission, he agreed to become a suicide bomber and returned to Peshawar for more religious training.
In March 2008, Vinas later told his FBI interrogators, he turned up in Waziristan, a mountainous border region in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden and other terror leaders are suspected of hiding out. There, he met a former Belgian taxi driver of Moroccan origin who "spouted off ideas about the possibility of attacking soccer stadiums in Europe, but didn't give a plan or details," according to a sworn statement Vinas later gave to Belgian prosecutors. The man also had been giving "speeches during Friday prayers at his local mosque where he served as the imam." In Waziristan, the Belgian had taken training in constructing electric circuits used in combat operations such as improvised explosive devices and suicide jackets. Vinas told authorities he also took terror training in Waziristan, taught to handle weapons and plastic explosives, including C-3, C-4 and Semtex. Vinas learned about voltage meters and battery tests and bomb circuits — the ingredients for a remote-detonated bomb — and how to rig an explosives-laden jacket for suicide bombers. "The students familiarized themselves with seeing, sensing and touching different explosives," he told investigators. Vinas described all this to the FBI, pinpointing the locations with photographs and maps and aiding bureau sketch artists.
He answered every question FBI agents posed to him, one official said, and the information was shared with the intelligence community. If it was "worthwhile and worth sharing, we put it out immediately," the official said. Vinas' most important contribution, authorities said, was disclosing the locations of safe houses and suspected terrorists, officials said. One of the operatives Vinas discussed with investigators was an al-Qaida recruiter, Abdullah Azzam, according to one official who spoke to The Associated Press about the case. Azzam died in an airstrike on Nov. 19, about the time Vinas was taken into custody. Officials declined to say whether Azzam or others that Vinas discussed with authorities were targeted in Predator airstrikes with his assistance. Vinas pleaded guilty Jan. 28 to conspiring to murder U.S. nationals. He faces life in prison, but his cooperation will likely earn him a reduced sentence.
AP writer Devlin Barrett reported from Washington.