WASHINGTON — Bryant Neal Vinas' unlikely odyssey from Long Island, N.Y., to Al Qaeda's innermost circle of commanders in Pakistan was achieved without any help in the U.S. from the well-oiled "jihadist pipeline" that has guided so many militants from Europe and other countries -- a fact that is cause for concern, current and former U.S. counter-terrorism officials said.
His case, which became public last week, showed that a U.S. convert to Islam bent on waging holy war could -- without much difficulty -- rely largely on friends and acquaintances to find his own way into the shadowy terrorist networks.
Current and former intelligence officials said that although they were able to at least partly track Vinas, they fear that the informal network of militants in Pakistan that he tapped into is widespread and below the radar of U.S. intelligence gathering.
Juan Zarate, the former deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism in the Bush administration, said that the Vinas case illustrated how difficult it was to follow young men who become radicalized and make their way to militant camps in Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
"I don't think the FBI or [CIA] would say that they've seen even a poorly organized or loose [U.S.] pipeline," Zarate said. "But I don't think anyone is fully confident that we have full visibility of all the potential pipelines or of radicalized individuals trying to make their way to fight."
"We're not worried about volume," Zarate added. "But all you need is a cell to inflict damage."
One former senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said Friday that American authorities were watching Vinas long before his arrest in Pakistan in November, possibly even before he bought a plane ticket taking him from the small village of Patchogue, N.Y., to Lahore, Pakistan.
The former official said U.S. and Pakistani authorities tried to monitor Vinas as he made his way from one contact to another and, ultimately, to an Afghan fighting unit and Al Qaeda's operational leadership.
"Clearly, we were watching him very carefully, doing our best to understand what he was doing and whether he was coming back to launch an attack of some sort," said the former official, who, like others quoted, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the ongoing investigation.
Vinas, 26, began cooperating with U.S. officials almost immediately after his arrest, providing what one current federal law enforcement official described as an astounding level of detail about Al Qaeda's top leadership and some of its foot soldiers.
"From the time that he was picked up until the present, we estimate that we have had at least a hundred meetings with him. We have shown him countless photos, we have shown him maps, brought him pictures. We've had sketch artists. We've done everything we can to try and paint as complete of a picture of who he met along the way, where he went, what he did and all of those things," the official said. "I think it's fair to say that he has been a gold mine, not just for the FBI but for the intelligence community in general."
Vinas also told authorities that most, if not all, of those who helped him along the way had no idea of his intentions -- a claim backed up through months of independent, intensive investigation, according to that official and others.
"From what we can tell . . . the contacts he made were his own. He was self-recruited; he was yearning to become a Muslim jihad fighter," the official said. "He made his own path."
Vinas was not the only one.
Recent cases in Europe have shown that aspiring militants follow a long, difficult and haphazard route -- sometimes failing in bids to join Al Qaeda. Although recruitment by ideologues in the West goes on, the more common pattern involves extremists who radicalize on their own and find Al Qaeda, rather than the network finding them.
Experts such as Marc Sageman, a scholar and former CIA officer, argue that this kind of self-recruitment is the dominant threat today.
Several current and former officials said the investigation was not yet complete into whether any of the people Vinas met along the way knowingly provided assistance, including at least three friends in New York of Pakistani descent whom Vinas identified in a lengthy statement. The statement was given to authorities in a case against three Belgians of North African descent whom he allegedly met in Al Qaeda camps in 2008.
"That doesn't necessarily mean they're promoting his effort to go on jihad. That's what friends do, especially in that [Muslim] community," in which hospitality and help are showered on traveling friends and strangers alike, the official said. "But certainly it does not appear that there is a machine here spitting people out of New York and into Pakistan -- to spot, assess, recruit and train them so they can go."
That official and others, however, said that there were dozens of investigations underway in the United States that focus, at least in part, on possible facilitation networks composed of several people, aided by Internet connections to others all over the world.
"That's what consumes most of our time, day to day," he said.