A young American’s journey into Al Qaeda
Weeks after arriving in Pakistan on a flight from New York, Bryant Neal Vinas plunged into holy war: He volunteered to train for a suicide attack and fought in the wilds of Afghanistan.
By the time he was captured in November, 14 months later, the Muslim convert from Long Island had journeyed into the innermost circles of Al Qaeda, according to a statement he gave investigators.
Vinas befriended fellow trainees who wanted to bomb stadiums in Europe. He learned to assemble explosives vests. And he had “detailed conversations” with top terrorists about attacks on Western and U.S. targets, according to a French-language summary of the statement he gave to Belgian investigators, which was obtained Thursday by Los Angeles Times reporters in Washington.
Vinas has pleaded guilty to federal charges, including conspiracy to commit murder and providing material support to a terrorist organization. He is cooperating with authorities.
In his time abroad, the 26-year-old son of Latin American immigrants left behind a tangible trace of his odyssey: He was one of a group of masked fighters in an Al Qaeda propaganda video released last fall featuring Abu Yahya al Libi, a leader and frequent spokesman.
“Vinas pointed himself out in the video during conversations with investigators,” said a European anti-terrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Investigators were alarmed by Vinas’ contact with Libi and Rashid Rauf, a Pakistani British operative reportedly involved in a 2006 plot to bring down U.S. flights and in the 2005 London bombings.
A U.S. missile strike killed Rauf in Pakistan on Nov. 21, days after Vinas was captured and gave detailed accounts about camps and leaders, investigators said. A warning of a potential threat against New York commuter trains was issued Nov. 25, hours after Vinas admitted to talking to Al Qaeda bosses about bombing a Long Island Rail Road train, officials said.
The six-page summary of Vinas’ statement is part of a court case in Brussels. It will be used as evidence today at a status hearing for three Belgians of North African descent facing terrorism charges. The defendants belong to a group of half a dozen militants who allegedly crossed paths with Vinas in Pakistan.
Vinas spoke with the Belgian investigators in the New York offices of the FBI on March 10 and 11, according to the document, about two months after he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges. He told investigators that he was born in Queens, N.Y., and converted to Islam in 2004.
The summary gives an account of how three friends in New York, apparently of Pakistani descent, helped him plan his trip. One friend arranged for relatives in Lahore, Pakistan, to receive Vinas and find him a hotel, Vinas said. Another introduced him to an Afghan family in Lahore who, through a cousin, connected him with a Taliban commander, the “chief of a group of fighters who have fought the U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.”
Vinas’ progress in the organization seems remarkable compared with many aspiring Western militants for whom the journey to join Al Qaeda has been grueling and ended in arrest or failure.
About three weeks after arriving in Lahore on Sept. 12, 2007, Vinas had joined the Taliban chief’s group. They crossed the Afghan border, and Vinas took part in an attack on an American base, according to the summary.
Vinas then returned to the Pakistani tribal area of Mohmand. He promptly accepted when a chief proposed him as a “candidate for a suicide attack,” the summary says. Vinas went “to Peshawar to get more training.” But finally, chiefs told him that he “needed more religious training before becoming a suicide bomber.”
Vinas made his way into the Waziristan region and fell in with Al Qaeda militants from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In March, he began paramilitary training in safe houses where he lived with trainees from Europe and militants of Turkish origin, according to the summary and investigators. He learned Arabic, Urdu and Pashtun in Pakistan.
His account highlights Al Qaeda’s penchant for bureaucracy: personnel files, applications and evaluations. Over four months, Vinas took three courses from an Arab instructor, alongside 10 to 20 students. The curriculum encompassed the use of firearms such as the AK-47 rifle; explosives theory and the assembly of bombs and suicide vests; and the use of rocket-type weapons.
Like other trainees, Vinas adopted an alias for security, calling himself Ibrahim. He grew close to several fighters, including a Turk who died in a car bombing of a U.S. base in Afghanistan.
Another friend was a Frenchman of Moroccan descent from a wealthy family near Evian, identified by anti-terrorism officials as Hamza el Alami. Alami told Vinas that he had spent a few days in a special course for international operations intended to recruit cells and teach them techniques for attacks outside South Asia.
Vinas also befriended a Belgian who had taken courses in kidnapping and assassination, according to the summary and investigators. The Belgian talked about attacking the subway in Brussels -- “an easy and little-guarded target” -- and European soccer stadiums.
The conversations had personal moments too: The Belgian, a father of three, confided that his wife had pushed him into jihad. An agitated Alami told Vinas that he worried that Al Qaeda would let him “rot in prison in Europe” if he got caught, according to the summary.
After getting approval from Al Qaeda’s military chief in South Asia, Vinas returned to combat in the Afghan border area in September, firing rockets across the Afghan border on an American base. After weeks of fighting, he returned to the border city of Peshawar.
Vinas had been there 10 months earlier, to have a doctor amputate the little toe of his right foot as the result of an unspecified ailment, according to the summary. This time he had another goal: He told investigators he intended to “find himself a wife.”
But Pakistani troops, guided by U.S. agents who had been tracking Vinas, arrested him. The secret odyssey of Bryant Neal Vinas was over.