Two Yemenis with alleged ties to Al Qaeda have been charged in U.S. federal court with conspiring to murder Americans abroad, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Federal prosecutors said the case highlights how a foreign terrorist network trained, armed and deployed a U.S. citizen to be used in attacks against other Americans.
The suspects, Saddiq Abbadi and Ali Alvi, were arrested in Saudi Arabia and began making initial court appearances in federal court in Brooklyn on Sunday and Tuesday. They are described by U.S. officials as top Al Qaeda fighters who attacked U.S. military forces stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing a U.S. Army Ranger and seriously wounding several others.
But what appears most intriguing about the case is the role of the American citizen, identified in court papers as Long Island native Bryant Neil Vinas, who was captured in 2008 by Pakistani forces and turned over to U.S. authorities. He pleaded guilty in 2009 to his involvement with Al Qaeda and conspiring to murder Americans abroad. He also began cooperating with U.S. officials.
A detention memo filed Tuesday afternoon in Brooklyn notes that Vinas, 31, at one time "developed a plan with senior Al Qaeda external operations leadership to conduct an attack on the Long Island Railroad in New York." That plot was foiled upon his arrest.
A separate criminal complaint from April 2009, unsealed Tuesday morning, does not name Vinas. Instead it describes the American citizen simply as a "cooperating witness." It says the American managed to join Al Qaeda, received arms and tactical training, and then fought against U.S. military forces. His story illustrates what many U.S. officials warn may be happening with other U.S. citizens leaving the country and hooking up with terror groups, such as Islamic State.
In the complaint, FBI Special Agent Henry C. Heim said the American traveled to Pakistan in 2007 "with the intention of waging violent jihad against United States armed forces in Afghanistan."
Heim said he "traveled from safe house to safe house" to try to join Al Qaeda. At one point he was suspected of being a spy, Heim said, but eventually befriended Abbadi and Alvi. In the months that followed, the pair allegedly tried to get the American weapons and tactical training from Al Qaeda. For awhile, the three of them lived together in an Al Qaeda safe house, the complaint says.
Heim said Abbadi encouraged the American by showing him "a scar from a bullet wound that he sustained while fighting against United States military or Blackwater forces in Iraq." He said Abbadi also showed the American "a clip on his Kalashnikov assault rifle that he had taken in Iraq as part of his 'spoils of war.'"
The three men would spend nights watching videos, including one "depicting jihadists celebrating after a successful attack," Heim said in the complaint. The American's alleged sponsors finally got him into a "basic weapons course," another on explosives, and a third on tactical maneuvers. He was introduced to other senior Al Qaeda leaders in a mosque in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. The American was eventually given his own Kalashnikov and the Al Qaeda nickname, "Kunya," Heim said.
The FBI agent said the American fought with a group that launched rocket attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Paktya, Afghanistan. When the emir of his fighting group was wounded, the American became an instructor on battlefield first aid, and how to dress a wound and perform CPR.
Then he returned to the battlefield and in June 2008, Heim said, was part of an Al Qaeda group that attacked an Afghan National Police Station and a mosque in Gardez, Pakistan.
Vinas, who has not yet been sentenced, faces a maximum punishment of life in prison.