An American who allegedly fought alongside al-Qaida had unusual access to the group's top leadership, intelligence officials tell NPR. That sets former Long Island Railway worker Bryant Neal Vinas, 26, apart from other Americans who have attended al-Qaida training camps and has made him a treasure trove of information, they say.
Vinas, a Latino-American, was raised Catholic on Long Island. He converted to Islam several years ago and then left for Pakistan where he said he would study Arabic and Islam. According to a federal indictment that was unsealed Wednesday, Vinas trained with al-Qaida in Pakistan last spring and went by the alias "Bashir al-Ameriki" or Bashir the American. The indictment says he provided the terrorist organization with "expert advice and information" about the New York City subway and Long Island Railroad, though it stopped short of accusing him of planning an attack on the system.
Vinas was arrested in Pakistan in November. It was then that he told U.S. authorities about plans for a possible attack on New York's trains. Federal authorities in Washington told law enforcement officials in New York about the threat, though officials sought to play down its significance. At the time, the FBI said it had received "uncorroborated but plausible information" that al-Qaida may have discussed attacks on transit systems in New York. Officials close to the case confirmed that Vinas was part of the reason for that alert.
Intelligence officials say unlike other Americans who may have trained with al-Qaida, Vinas appears to have had unfettered access to the group's top leadership. He was allegedly in the room — and part of meetings — that involved al-Qaida's operational command. Generally, recruits at al-Qaida camps are held at arm's distance. To even enter a camp, recruits need to have a trusted sponsor who can vouch for them and guarantee that they are not spies. Officials said that Vinas must have had a high-ranking sponsor to have been in on meetings in which possible attacks were discussed.
The Lackawanna Six, a group of Yemeni men from outside Buffalo, N.Y., went to a camp in the spring of 2001. They met briefly with Osama bin Laden. But the six say that during those encounters, bin Laden just asked them general questions about their training and how they were faring in the camp. They were not involved with any operational discussions.
Two people close to the Vinas case said he pleaded guilty to providing material support to al-Qaida and other charges but has been very helpful to authorities. He is testifying against other alleged operatives in Europe. He also allegedly admitted to taking part in rocket attacks on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan just two months before he was arrested.