Al-Qaeda on Long Island, of all places!
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|Thu, 07-23-2009 - 2:57am|
This story reminded me of this board, since Long Island seems to come up a lot around here. This guy was living in Patchogue and grew up in Medford.
American admits fighting for al-Qaida
Thursday, July 23, 2009
By Sebastian Rotella and Josh Meyer, Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON -- An American from New York's Long Island who was captured while fighting as an al-Qaida militant in Pakistan has pleaded guilty 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 a handful of Americans known to have made the trek to al-Qaida's secret Pakistani compounds. His cooperation is opening a rare window to Western militants in the network's hide-outs, anti-terrorism officials said.
Mr. Vinas has admitted to meeting al-Qaida 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. Mr. Vinas told investigators that he fired rockets during a militant attack on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, the officials said.
Pakistani forces captured him in November. He now is in U.S. custody. An indictment was unsealed yesterday after repeated queries from the Los Angeles Times 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," a U.S. Justice Department official said.
The U.S.-born son of immigrants from Peru and Argentina, Mr. Vinas was raised a Roman Catholic and played baseball in tidy working-class suburbs where Elks lodges mixed with taquerias. His unlikely transformation into an al-Qaida 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-terrorism official. "I am not aware of other Americans who went with him or who have trained recently in . ... He stands out. A Latino American is an unusual profile."
Since his capture, Mr. Vinas has been talkative and cooperative. He has provided a detailed account of his sojourn and lengthy testimony for upcoming terrorism 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-Qaida, according to European and U.S. officials. He was in custody at the time he testified, according to a European anti-terrorism official.
Mr. Vinas' father says he does not know where his son is. "The FBI asked me all kinds of questions about him, but they don't tell me nothing," said Juan Vinas, who lives in Patchogue, N.Y., near the south shore of Long Island.
The retired Peruvian-born engineer, 63, was interviewed recently 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 neighborhood houses fly flags of the United States and the New York Yankees.
Bryant 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 that Bryant 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, 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; John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" serving a 20-year prison sentence; and Jose Padilla, a former street-gang member convicted in 2007 of terrorism-related crimes after allegations of a "dirty bomb" plot were dropped.
Since al-Qaida lost its Afghan sanctuary, the difficult, dangerous route to its new base in Pakistan has dissuaded many extremists. One of the few Americans recently accused of joining the core al-Qaida 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 terrorist network.
Bryant Vinas told investigators that he arrived in December 2007 in the northwestern Pakistani badlands dominated by al-Qaida and the Taliban, anti-terrorism officials said. They said that despite the network's wariness of spies and a campaign of U.S. missile strikes, he was treated well, in contrast with some Western recruits who complained of being shaken down for money.
In fact, he admitted to meeting frontline chiefs of al-Qaida's operations to discuss his training and potential role in the network, U.S. and European officials said.
During conversations sometime between March and November last year, Mr. Vinas gave the terrorism 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.
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-Qaida terrorists had discussed targeting transit systems in and around New York City.
Like other trainees, Mr. Vinas adopted aliases for security reasons, also calling himself Ibrahim, according to officials and the indictment. He underwent paramilitary training and participated in armed groups that went on missions near the Afghan border, he told officials. He took part in an attack on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan in September 2008, firing rockets, the officials said.
During statements to investigators, Mr. Vinas described a French trainee in Pakistan who complained that his father had reported him missing, anti-terrorism officials said. That detail made investigators realize that Mr. 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.
Mr. Vinas' leap from Long Island to Waziristan seems even more remarkable. He grew up with his Argentine-born mother and sister Lina after the parents divorced. A dispute with his mother caused him to leave their house in nearby Medford, N.Y., and move in with his father at least four years ago, relatives said. The sister said she had no contact with him in seven years.
Juan Vinas said his son resisted advice to go to college. He took a few technical courses but failed to complete them, his father said. He worked in nearby Smithtown, but did not tell his father anything about his job.
About a year after moving to Patchogue, Bryant Vinas began spending time away from home. He told his father he attended a mosque and community center, the Islamic Association of Long Island, about eight miles away in Selden. Worshippers at the area's oldest mosque, which used to be an Episcopal church, are predominantly Pakistani. The mosque president, pharmacist Nayyar Imam, said he did not recall Bryant Vinas. In an interview, he said he talked periodically to the FBI and Homeland Security agency and stayed alert for suspicious behavior.
But a former FBI counterterrorism official said suspected extremists have been identified at the mosque.
Bryant Vinas began wearing Islamic robes and a skullcap, his father said. "He became very excited" about Islam and immersed himself in the Quran 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. Bryant never explained, except in general terms, why he liked Islam so much. "He said there were some differences between that and the Catholic ). He said he don't believe in the saints," his father said.
In September 2007, the father said he noticed that Bryant 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 at the mosque, without success.
During the cordial FBI visits last year, agents asked about Bryant without mentioning al-Qaida. Juan Vinas said he showed them his son's room. Agents took a laptop computer and photos. Told during the interviews with a reporter about allegations that his son attended training camps, the father slumped forward. He pressed 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."