MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Among the homegrown terror suspects who've been caught, many failed in their efforts to connect with terror groups. That would describe the suspects arrested earlier this week in North Carolina.
Twenty-six-year-old Bryant Neal Vinas is a different case entirely. Federal officials say he made it all the way into al-Qaida's inner ranks. He not only ended up in a camp in Pakistan, but in meetings with some of the group's top leaders - the very people who help plan and carry out attacks around the world. Now, he's in custody in the U.S., and officials say the intelligence he has provided suggests that al-Qaida may be vulnerable.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: There's one huge question surrounding the case of Bryant Neal Vinas: how did a 26-year-old Latino from Long Island, with no historical links to al-Qaida, managed to do what U.S. intelligence officials haven't been able to do since the 9/11 attacks, namely, break into al-Qaida's inner sanctum?
Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Former Deputy National Security Adviser, Bush Administration): I think al-Qaida is always in search of interesting operatives.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Juan Zarate was a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration.
Mr. ZARATE: So this may be a case where al-Qaida saw something in this individual and it, to a certain extent, demonstrates a breakdown of al-Qaida protocols and security that you have somebody like this who probably was not all that well vetted entering into al-Qaida camps.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Zarate thinks Vinas profited by the experience al-Qaida had with a handful of American jihadists who came before him. They paved the way for his easy acceptance.
Mr. ZARATE: Al-Qaida has had good experience working with people like Jose Padilla. And so, al-Qaida is always on the lookout to identify and trained individuals who can operate easily in the West.
Professor SAM RASCOFF (Law, New York University School of Law): One thing he had going for him was an American passport, that and a clean American criminal record.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Sam Rascoff is a terrorism expert at New York University Law School.
Prof. RASCOFF: So he started with a distinctive leg up on the competition.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Two senior U.S. officials said that U.S. intelligence started tracking Vinas before he left the country two years ago.
Prof. RASCOFF: He begins by associating with certain people in New York City. They know someone overseas.
TEMPLE-RASTON: NYU's Rascoff provides a broad outline of how someone like Vinas would get to the camps.
Prof. RASCOFF: And the next thing he knows it, he's in the company of Taliban leadership, who, in turn, send him to a place where he's in close proximity to al-Qaida. It's really a case of one step at a time and on the basis of one personal reference at a time.
TEMPLE-RASTON: 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 he started tapping into an intricate but informal network of militants that fly under the U.S. intelligence radar.
An official familiar with the case says Vinas was a self-recruiter. He converted to Islam and went to Pakistan with only minimal connections, which makes his acceptance by al-Qaida all the more remarkable.
Prof. RASCOFF: It tends to undermine the story we've been telling about what it takes to get inside the hard core of al-Qaida.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And that raises the question: why hasn't the CIA been able to do what Vinas did? Rascoff says the issue isn't getting a CIA operative into a camp, it's getting him out.
Prof. RASCOFF: Let's assume that we could follow the Vinas playbook, literally, play-by-play. 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 am I going to be able to extract this source with his neck intact?
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's a risk that as far as we know, U.S. intelligence hasn't taken.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.