This item is available on the Militant Islam Monitor website, at http://www.militantislammonitor.org/article/id/4035
July 28, 2009
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):
In the fall of 2007, I left my home in Long Island to travel to Pakistan with the intention of meeting and joining a jihadist group to fight American soldiers in Afghanistan. When I arrived in Pakistan, I made contact with and was accepted into al Qaeda, a jihadist group that I knew to be responsible for attacks against the United States, including suicide bombings targeting civilians.
As a member of al Qaeda, I received training in courses in general combat and explosives. During my time in al Qaeda, I took part, at the direction of al Qaeda leaders, in two missions in September 2008 in which we agreed and planned to attack a United States military base near the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The first attack failed and we had to abort the mission before firing on the base, but a few days later, I took part in firing rockets at an American military base. Although we intended to hit the military base and kill American soldiers, I was informed that the rockets missed and the attack failed.
Finally, during my time with al Qaeda, I consulted with a senior al Qaeda 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. The purpose of providing this information was to help plan a bomb attack of the Long Island Rail Road system.
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 summary gives an account of how three friends in New York, apparently of Pakistani descent, helped him plan his trip. One friend arranged for relatives in Lahore, Pakistan, to receive Vinas and find him a hotel, Vinas said. Another introduced him to an Afghan family in Lahore who, through a cousin, connected him with a Taliban commander, the "chief of a group of fighters who have fought the U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan."
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
American's odyssey to al Qaeda's heart
July 31, 2009
Editor's note: This story is based on interrogation reports that form part of the prosecution case in the forthcoming trial of six Belgian citizens charged with participation in a terrorist group. Versions of those documents were obtained by CNN from the defense attorney of one of those suspects. The statement by Bryant Vinas was compiled from an interview he gave Belgian prosecutors in March 2009 in New York, and was confirmed by U.S. prosecutors as authentic. The statement by Walid Othmani was given to French investigators, and was authenticated by Belgian prosecutors.
(CNN) -- On September 10, 2007, almost exactly six years after al Qaeda attacked the United States, Bryant Neal Vinas, a 24-year-old American citizen born in Queens, New York, boarded a flight from the city en route to Lahore, in eastern Pakistan, determined to fight jihad in neighboring Afghanistan.
Brought up a Catholic by his Latin American immigrant parents, who divorced when he was young, Vinas tried to join the U.S. Army in 2002 but dropped out after just a few weeks.
In 2004 -- for reasons which are still unclear -- he converted to Islam and started frequenting a mosque in Long Island near where he lived with his father. During the next three years he became radicalized, U.S. officials have stated, in no small part because of his exposure to pro-al Qaeda Web sites.
It is possible that Vinas was also influenced by people he came across in the New York area. A former U.S. government official told CNN that youths influenced by the ideas of the British pro-al Qaeda extremist group Al Muhajiroun were known to have hung out in the vicinity of the mosque at the same time as Vinas. Read how al Qaeda is changing
The former official told CNN that they were a splinter group of the Al Muhajiroun followers who used to hang out in the New York-Long Island area in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Al Muhajiroun's American members, the former official stated, included Syed Hashmi, a Brooklyn college graduate who traveled to Pakistan in 2003 and now awaits trial on charges of providing material support to the terrorist network. He has pleaded not guilty.
Another who belonged to Al Muhajiroun was Mohammed Junaid Babar, a trainee Queens taxi driver, who met two of the July 7, 2005, London bombers in Pakistan and who in 2004 pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists in Pakistan.
Al Muhajiroun was formally disbanded in October 2004 but still operates, CNN has discovered, under a variety of guises.
Anjem Choudhary, the former deputy leader of Al Muhajiroun, told CNN Monday that New York was one of the organization's main hubs before 2004. He says dozens of followers from the New York area still regularly tune into online sermons put together by the group's founder Omar Bakri Mohammed in Tripoli, Lebanon, where he has been living since being banned from the UK after the 2005 London bombings.
Choudhary stated that he and Bakri were still loosely affiliated with The Islamic Thinkers Society, a New York based organization, which says the peaceful restoration of the Islamic Caliphate is one of its objectives.
A March 5, 2009, posting on the homepage of its Web site states that Bakri Mohammed is "a man who has inspired thousands across the world to rise for Islam." The Islamic Thinkers Society exists legally in the United States and says it is committed solely to the political and intellectual struggle for Islam.
When Vinas arrived in Lahore he had little idea about how he was going to gain access to the fighting in Afghanistan, according to his own account. But a few days after he arrived he sought help from a New York friend, whom he knew moved in militant circles.
One introduction led to another and eventually Vinas met a jihadist commander about to return to Afghanistan.
Identified in legal documents as S.S., the commander agreed to let him join his group. CNN has learned from a source briefed on the case that the initials S.S. stand for a man who goes by the name of Shah Saab, and is believed to be somewhere in Pakistan's tribal areas.
At the end of September, Vinas was whisked in the commander's car into Pakistan's tribal areas and then across the border into Afghanistan to join up with a small band of fighters targeting a U.S. base. The raid, however, was called off at the last minute because of American aircraft circling above.
His quick introduction to the fighting appears to have been unusual. Vinas stated it was standard for fighters to undergo military training before being selected for such missions. Read how al Qaeda training tactics are adapting
It is possible he persuaded his handlers that his brief stint as a U.S. army recruit justified him being fast-tracked; or perhaps the jihadist group just needed more fighters.
On his return to Mohmand, a district in Pakistan's tribal areas, Vinas was asked by one of the fighters if he wanted to become a suicide bomber. Vinas, according to his own account, accepted and was sent to Peshawar, Pakistan, for more instruction.
But his handlers there judged that he had not received enough religious instruction to launch such an attack. Perhaps it was dawning on them just how valuable an American recruit might one day be.
Vinas stated that at this point he traveled back to a village in Waziristan where he spent time with a number of al Qaeda members, including Saudis and Yemenis.
In March 2008 he successfully persuaded one of them, a Yemeni he identified as Soufran, to recommend him for formal membership in the terrorist group. Only Soufran's initials appeared in the legal document but CNN obtained his name from a source briefed on the case. His current whereabouts are unknown.
According to Vinas, al Qaeda recruits were asked to fill out forms with personal information and hand over their passports when they joined the organization, but were not required to sign a contract or take part in a ceremony to become a member of al Qaeda.
Between March and July 2008 Vinas stated that he attended three al Qaeda training courses, which focused on weapons, explosives, and rocket-based or -propelled weaponry.
Vinas stated that when training was completed, al Qaeda instructors did a written evaluation of performances. Vinas was judged qualified to participate in missile attacks against U.S. and NATO bases in Afghanistan, according to his account.
During his travels Vinas met some of al Qaeda's top leaders, leaders he was able to identify to U.S. authorities after his capture. Read how al Qaeda is looking at Western targets
According to U.S. investigators, quoted by the Los Angeles Times, Vinas says he met with Abu Yayha al Libi, one of al Qaeda's principal spokesmen, and Rashid Rauf, the British al Qaeda operative suspected of coordinating a plot against transatlantic aviation in August 2006.
Rauf, who was arrested that August in Pakistan, escaped from custody in December 2007 but is believed to have been killed in a Predator strike in North Waziristan in November 2008.
Vinas says he also met with an individual by the name of Abdullah Saeed, whom he says replaced Abu Leith al Libbi as al Qaeda's military chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan in January 2008. A former Jihadist told CNN that Saeed is almost certainly Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid, an Egyptian also known as Sheikh Saeed. In June, Al-Yazid released an audio recording complaining of a lack of funds for the fighting in Afghanistan.
Vinas stated he met with Saeed in the late summer of 2008 in Waziristan, and al Qaeda's military chief personally instructed him to join a group of fighters targeting U.S. bases from the tribal areas of Pakistan. In January this year Vinas pleaded guilty to having targeted an American base in September of that year.
That attack, however, appears to have been a failure. Creeping up towards the American forward operating base Vinas and other al Qaeda fighters' first attempt to fire on the base was botched by radio problems. The second rocket attack fell short of the base, according to Vinas' account.
Vinas' life as an al Qaeda fighter saw him rotate between fighting behind enemy lines in Afghanistan, training in remote mountain dwellings in the tribal areas, and spending downtime in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, where he was eventually arrested in November 2008 and transferred into American custody.
This item is available on the Militant Islam Monitor website, at http://www.militantislammonitor.org/article/id/4035