Bryant Neal Vinas, 26, left Long Island, N.Y., two years ago to join al-Qaida and ended up not just in a terrorist camp in Pakistan but in the middle of meetings with some of al-Qaida's top leaders — the operational command that helps plan and carry out attacks around the world.
The central question surrounding his case is: How did a 20-something Latino from Long Island with no historical links to al-Qaida manage to do what U.S. intelligence officials haven't been able to do since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks? How did Vinas break into al-Qaida's inner sanctum?
Juan Zarate, who was deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism in the Bush administration, says al-Qaida is always in search of what he calls "interesting operatives."
"This may be a case where al-Qaida saw something in this individual," Zarate says. "And it, to a certain extent, demonstrates a breakdown in al-Qaida protocols and security, because you have someone like this who probably was not all that well vetted entering into al-Qaida camps."
Zarate says Vinas may have broken through because until now, al-Qaida has had a largely positive experience with the handful of American jihadists who have arrived in its camps. He says the travelers who had come before Vinas essentially helped pave the way for his easy acceptance.
"Al-Qaida has had good experience working with people like Jose Padilla," says Zarate, referring to the Chicago gang member who went to an al-Qaida camp and returned to the U.S. Padilla was subsequently found guilty for providing material support to a terrorist organization.
"Al-Qaida is always on the lookout to identify and train individuals who can operate easily in the West," Zarate says.
Sam Rascoff, a terrorism expert at the New York University Law School, says Vinas might have been welcomed by al-Qaida not only because he had an American passport, but also because he had no criminal record. "He started with a distinctive leg up on the competition," Rascoff says.
What al-Qaida didn't seem to realize is that U.S. intelligence started tracking Vinas before he ever left Long Island two years ago. Two senior U.S. officials said they were aware that he had started asking around local mosques for help in possibly getting to Pakistan to wage jihad. Vinas was arrested in Pakistan in November.
Rascoff says someone like Vinas would "begin by associating with certain people in New York City, and they know someone overseas. He goes to Pakistan, and then the next thing he knows he is in the company of Taliban leadership who, in turn, send him to a place where he is in close proximity to al-Qaida."
Says Rascoff, "It is really a case of taking it one step at a time and one personal reference at a time."
U.S. intelligence tried to keep tabs on who Vinas met with and where he went. But when he got to the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the trail grew faint. That's when Vinas started tapping into an intricate but informal network of militants who generally fly under the U.S. intelligence radar.
An official familiar with the case says Vinas is unusual in that he was a self-recruiter. Reared a Roman Catholic, he converted to Islam and attended a local mosque on Long Island. When he decided to go to Pakistan, he went with only minimal connections and virtually no local language skills, which makes his acceptance by al-Qaida all the more remarkable — and gets to the larger question of why the CIA has not been able to do the same.
"Vinas' experience tends to undermine the story we've been telling about what it takes to get inside the hard core al-Qaida," says Rascoff, adding that it is possible that U.S. intelligence has just assumed that the camps would be impenetrable. "They may be overestimating the enemy."
Second-guessing aside, Rascoff says the CIA is wrestling with a bigger issue than just getting an operative into a camp. The agency would also need to get him out.
"Let's assume we could follow the Vinas playbook literally play by play," he says. "Still, the American organization or official would be left with the question, 'Now that my source is on the inside and bringing all this terrific intelligence back to headquarters, how on Earth will I be able to extract this source with his neck intact?' "
That's a risk that, as far as we know, U.S. intelligence hasn't taken.