LI man possible witness in terror trial

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When a shadowy Long Island man who became a sworn member of al-Qaida was captured in Pakistan in 2008, U.S. intelligence officials sensed they had struck gold.

The young jihadist was whisked away to a New York courtroom in early 2009, where he secretly pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and was then held in seclusion. His identity -- but not much else -- was made public a few months later.

More than three years later, the world could get a full introduction to Bryant Neal Vinas, of Patchogue, at a trial starting Monday of another man accused in a foiled plot to attack New York City subways.

Vinas' name appears on a list of potential witnesses in the case against Adis Medunjanin -- and officials say he would offer a unique perspective on the inner workings of the terror group and how it indoctrinates born-in-the-U.S. extremists.

Medunjanin has pleaded not guilty in federal court in Brooklyn to charges accusing him of traveling to Pakistan with two former high school classmates from Queens, Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay, to seek terror training and hatch their scheme back home.

Zazi, a former Denver airport shuttle driver, and Ahmedzay have admitted in guilty pleas that they wanted to avenge U.S. aggression in the Arab world by becoming martyrs in a suicide attack on Manhattan subway lines in 2009. Both men are key government witnesses against Medunjanin.

Vinas, 29, was never charged in the case. But he's an intriguing and valuable cooperator because he had extraordinary access to al-Qaida's leadership, a U.S. official said.

Known by the nicknames "Ibrahim" or "Bashir al-Ameriki," Vinas met on a few occasions with Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaida's now No. 2.

He also mixed with Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the top commander in Afghanistan, and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who orchestrated a plot involving a double agent that led to the killing of seven CIA employees -- both since killed in drone strikes.

A video released in October 2008 and shot at an al-Qaida outpost shows al-Libi with an armed man believed to be Vinas -- his head wrapped in a scarf and an ammo belt around his waist -- a month before his capture, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.

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Vinas also could captivate the jury with his personal tale of radicalization -- a subject of intense interest to counterterrorism officials concerned about homegrown threats.

"He's a fascinating story," Steve Zissou, Vinas' attorney, said while declining to confirm if his client will indeed testify.

By pleading guilty to conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, Vinas faces a maximum term of life in prison, though his cooperation could win leniency. No sentencing date has been set.

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