Long Island man admits to plotting with al-Qaida, offers glimpse into terror training camps

NEW YORK — He grew up in the solid middle class of Long Island, the son of an engineer, the child of a couple that had emigrated from South America, a fan of football and video games, an altar boy and, eventually, a Boy Scout.

But Bryant Neal Vinas became very angry, according to his mother, when his parents' bitter divorce cleaved through his adolescence. He opted against college and, instead joined the U.S. Army at 18.

Years later, he became a Muslim, joined a mosque, began visiting Jihadist Web sites and, in 2008, traveled to Pakistan, and eventually Afghanistan. There, this young man from a suburb tried to kill American soldiers in an al-Qaida rocket attack against a military base, according to federal court papers unsealed in Brooklyn on Wednesday. He remains in U.S. custody in New York.

Some two months after the September assault, Vinas, going by names like Bashir al-Ameriki, or Bashir the American, was picked up by Pakistani authorities in Peshawar, according to U.S. officials. Days later, he was back in the United States, providing counterterrorism officials with information gleaned from his visits to al-Qaida's camps, leading to Predator drone strikes and the arrests of two senior Qaida operatives, Zabi al-Taifi and Abu Sufyan al-Yemeni.

Vinas, 26, pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to murder U.S. nationals, providing material support to al-Qaida and receiving military training from the group.

He also told Brooklyn federal prosecutors and FBI agents about discussions he had with operational planners from al-Qaida about a plot to blow up a train inside Pennsylvania Station.

The information prompted a flurry of security activity over the Thanksgiving holiday as authorities scrambled to take extra precautions, though it did not appear the planned attack had yet been put into motion.

He is one of a handful of Americans known to have made the trek to al-Qaida's secret Pakistani compounds, and his cooperation is opening a rare window into the world of Western militants in the network's hideouts, antiterrorism officials said.

The case is at the heart of interconnected investigations in at least seven countries.

Vinas was raised a Roman Catholic and his unlikely transformation into an al-Qaida fighter underscores fears that other Americans followed the same route.

Since his capture, Vinas has been talkative and cooperative. He has provided a detailed account of his sojourn and testimony for upcoming terrorism trials in Europe, 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.

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, spoke at the home he shared with his son: a modest brick house with white siding and a statue of an angel on the lawn.

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.

The agents told the family that Vinas was in Pakistan and asked about his travels and religious conversion, saying they were checking on Americans in Pakistan after the attack.

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. "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 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-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.

Vinas told investigators that he arrived in December 2007 in northwestern Pakistan and admitted to meeting frontline chiefs of al-Qaida's operations to discuss his training and potential role in the network.

During conversations sometime between March and November last year, 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.

Vinas' leap from Long Island to Waziristan seems remarkable. He grew up with his Argentine-born mother and his sister, Lina, after the parents divorced.

"He's a good person, really," his stepmother, Rosa Gutierrez, said. "He's really normal."

A dispute with his mother caused him to leave their well-tended stucco house in nearby Medford, N.Y., and move in with his father at least four years ago.

About a year after moving to Patchogue, Bryant Vinas began attending a mosque and community center, the Islamic Association of Long Island, in Selden.

The worshippers at the area's oldest mosque are predominantly Pakistani. The mosque president, pharmacist Nayyar Imam, said he did not recall Vinas. He said he talked periodically to the FBI and Homeland Security agency and stayed alert for suspicious behavior.

"I keep an eye like a hawk on this place," Imam 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 even encouraged his father to consider converting.

"He tried and tried," said Juan Vinas, who raised his children as devout Catholics.

When told by a reporter about allegations that his son attended training camps, the father slumped forward.

"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."

The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Associated Press contributed to this report.

Long Island man admits to plotting with al-Qaida, offers glimpse into terror training camps 07/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 12:07am]

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