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U.S.-born militant who fought for Al Qaeda is in custody

After being captured at an extremist training camp in Pakistan, Bryant Neal Vinas, of Long Island, is working with authorities in converging investigations rooted in at least seven countries.

July 23, 2009|Sebastian Rotella And Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON AND PATCHOGUE, N.Y. — An American Muslim convert from Long Island, N.Y., who was captured while fighting for Al Qaeda in Pakistan is now cooperating with authorities, opening a rare window into the world of Western militants in the network's hide-outs, U.S. and European anti-terrorism officials said.

Bryant Neal Vinas, 26, is one of the few Americans known to have made the trek to Al Qaeda's secret Pakistani compounds, the officials said.

Vinas has admitted to meeting Al Qaeda 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 was ongoing.

Vinas told investigators he fired rockets during a militant attack on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, the officials said.

He was captured by Pakistanis in November and is in custody in the U.S. He pleaded guilty in January to charges including conspiracy to commit murder for firing on U.S. troops and providing material support to a terrorist organization.

An indictment was unsealed Wednesday after repeated queries about Vinas from Los Angeles Times reporters in Washington. Until then, the case had been a closely guarded secret at the heart of investigations in at least seven countries.

"It is a massive case," said a Justice Department official.

The U.S.-born son of immigrants from Peru and Argentina, Vinas was raised a Catholic and played baseball in working-class suburbs, where Elks Lodges mixed with taquerias.

His transformation into a fighter nicknamed Bashir el Ameriki (Bashir the American) underscored fears that other Americans had followed the same route. Their ability to train overseas and return below the radar concerns authorities.

"His background is clearly unusual," said a senior European 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, providing a detailed account of his sojourn and testimony for upcoming terrorism trials in Europe, the officials said.

In March, he gave a statement in New York to a magistrate and police from Belgium that will be used as evidence against three jailed Belgians who admitted to training with Al Qaeda. He also has been questioned by French investigators.

Vinas' father says he has gone months without knowing where his son is.

"The FBI asked me all kinds of questions about him, but they don't tell me" anything, 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.

After converting to Islam, the younger Vinas abruptly left home in September 2007, talking about wanting to study the religion and Arabic, his father said. A year later, after a truck bomb killed more than 50 people at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, FBI agents interviewed the family, relatives said.

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, Juan Vinas said. Since then, the FBI has not answered repeated calls and letters, he said.

"I think that the FBI knows where he is," said the elder Vinas, a short, trim, polite man. "But they won't tell me."

Even during the years when Osama bin Laden's Afghan camps trained thousands, U.S. recruits were scarce.

American converts from that era include Adam Gadahn, a fugitive propaganda chief; fellow Californian John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," who pleaded guilty in 2002 to terrorism charges; and Jose Padilla, a former street gang member convicted in 2007.

After Al Qaeda lost its Afghan sanctuary, the increasingly difficult and dangerous route to the network's new base in Pakistan dissuaded many extremists.

Vinas told investigators he arrived at the camps in December 2007, anti-terrorism officials said. Despite Al Qaeda's fear of spies, Vinas was treated well because someone in the network's structure had vouched for him, investigators say.

"He had a good reference, so they trusted him," an anti-terrorism official said.

Vinas admitted to meeting front-line chiefs of Al Qaeda operations to discuss his training and potential role in the network, officials said.

In conversations between March and November 2008, Vinas gave the leaders "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.

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