How a terrorist from Long Island made contact with Al Qaeda
July 28, 2009
The Al Qaeda Terrorist from Long IslandThomas Joscelyn on July 27, 2009 05:15 PM
Around Thanksgiving time last year, the FBI and NYPD suddenly warned of a terrorist threat against the commuter rail lines in the New York metro area. Security was stepped up. There was the usual round of reporting on whether or not the threat was legitimate. And then the story died. That is, the story was dead until last week.
Press reports published in the past week indicate that the source of the threat spike was intelligence gleaned from the FBI's interrogations of a Long Island man named Bryant Neal Vinas. His story is equally troubling and fascinating. The most troubling aspect of Vinas's tale is that he was sitting in a mosque in eastern New York when he decided to travel thousands of miles abroad to join al Qaeda and the Taliban. Thus, Vinas joined the ranks of hundreds of other so-called "homegrown" jihadists who were inspired to wage jihad while living in the West. Vinas's story is also fascinating because he managed to meet with and serve senior al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in Pakistan in a relatively short period of time. His access to senior al Qaeda leaders was so good that he has reportedly become a valuable informant.
We are left to ask: How did Vinas manage to gain the trust of some of the most dangerous and paranoid terrorists on the planet?
Court documents released online tell Vinas's story. In January of this year, Vinas confessed to a Brooklyn court (transcript available at intelwire.com):
What Vinas did not reveal in his confession is how, precisely, he came to make "contact with" and be "accepted into al Qaeda." This is no small feat. For years, western intelligence services, which have reportedly had little success infiltrating al Qaeda's ranks, have complained that al Qaeda's measures keep them out. Al Qaeda has strict security protocols to prevent spies and saboteurs from entering its ranks. For example, al Qaeda members are frequently required to vouch for new recruits. If the new recruit turns out to be an "unfriendly," then al Qaeda knows who let him into their club. This acts both as a deterrent (no one wants to vouch for a rat and, therefore, suffer the consequences), as well as an easy-to-employ counterintelligence tactic. The result is, with few exceptions, only the most committed jihadists are let into al Qaeda's clubhouse.
Vinas managed to assuage any of al Qaeda's and the Taliban's security concerns rather quickly.
Within weeks of arriving in Pakistan in September 2007, according to the Los Angeles Times, Vinas became part of the "Taliban chief's group." Vinas then made his way deep into the heart of Taliban and al Qaeda country in northern Pakistan. Shortly thereafter, he was plotting with senior al Qaeda leaders, including Rashid Rauf and Abu Yahya al Libi.
Rauf was the al Qaeda terrorist partly responsible for planning the July 7, 2005, bombings in London and the 2006 plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners flying out of Heathrow airport. Rauf was killed in a predator strike in northern Pakistan just days after Vinas was arrested in November 2008. (Press reports hint that intelligence from Vinas may have played a role in the strike that killed Rauf, although this is far from clear.) Abu Yahya al Libi is a top-tier al Qaeda terrorist in his own right, and has released numerous propaganda videos since 2005. During his post-arrest interviews, Vinas reportedly pointed out that he appeared in one of al Libi's videos as a masked man.
Again, how could Vinas get into al Qaeda's and the Taliban's good graces so quickly? And how could a westerner come to work for senior al Qaeda terrorists, who are notoriously paranoid about their own security?
The answer may lie in the LA Times's account of Vinas's journey. The Times cites a summary prepared by Belgian investigators after they interviewed Vinas in the FBI's New York offices. The Times reports:
The Times does not say so, but this is evidence that the Taliban and al Qaeda still have an active recruiting network on U.S. soil. Without this assistance, it is doubtful that Vinas could have found his way into the welcoming arms of the jihadist axis so quickly.
It is likely that U.S. investigators are already looking into how Vinas's trip was organized and the role his "friends" played in helping him. One wonders: Are his "friends" still stateside? Are they being monitored by law enforcement? If so, where are they? Are they working on recruiting the next Vinas?
These are all pressing questions because this is not the first time a New Yorker has been recruited in his home state by al Qaeda and the Taliban. For instance, the Lackawanna Six were recruited by a long-time recruiter for Osama bin Laden at a mosque in the Buffalo area. And it is known that al Qaeda and the Taliban operate a world-wide recruiting network, which has been responsible for recruiting thousands of wanna-be jihadists.
It seems likely that there are other al Qaeda and Taliban recruiters still operating on American soil today. It also now seems possible that al Qaeda is not as impenetrable as was once thought. After all, if a young Long Island man can convince al Qaeda's senior terrorists that he is worthy of their trust, then couldn't a risk-loving spy do the same?
Posted by Thomas Joscelyn on July 27, 2009