Seven years ago, before his scheduled sentencing today of Long Island terrorist-turned-informant Bryant Neal Vinas, Brooklyn U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis had to balance the criminal activities of another lethal group with the valued cooperation of one of its members.
In that case, Garaufis decided to free Bonanno family underboss-turned-informant Salvatore Vitale from prison after less than eight years despite his admitted role in 11 murders, in recognition of the vital assistance he had provided law enforcement.
“The efficacy of our criminal justice system is dependent upon the cooperation of criminals in the prosecution of other criminals,” Garaufis said then. “And this cooperation does not come without a cost.”
On Thursday Vinas, the altar boy from Patchogue who became an al-Qaida operative and plotted with terror leaders in Pakistan to attack the Long Island Rail Road before returning home to inform on his former jihadist colleagues, will learn from Garaufis if an ex-terrorist can get the same leniency as an ex-mobster.
Captured in 2008, Vinas, now 34, has cooperated with the government ever since, and received a strong recommendation for leniency from prosecutors. Garaufis has already called it the “most difficult” sentencing he’s ever faced, but experts caution that even with the government’s blessing, it’s far from clear how he will rule.
Daniel Richman, an ex-prosecutor who teaches at Columbia University Law School, said that a judge may indeed see a terrorist as a bigger threat than a mobster. “What makes the terrorism cases stand apart is the targeting of innocent, unrelated people in a way designed to make other people fearful,” he said.
But, he cautions, if terrorism is more of a threat, a judge may also see someone like Vinas who cooperates against terrorism as providing more valuable information, deserving of special leniency to encourage cooperation. “It cuts two different ways,” he said.
Whatever the outcome, the sentencing will climax a long, strange decade for Vinas, a Longwood High graduate whose journey took him from the suburbs to the mountainous borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan to eight years in high-security custody as a prized informant whose tips are said to have outed plots and guided drones.
The child of two South American immigrants who divorced when he was around 10, friends have described him as an apparently normal kid — fond of baseball and boxing, shy around girls — who in high school complained about difficulties at home. He has told probation officials that he “suffered abuse” as a child, but court filings do not describe its nature.
Vinas joined the Army in 2002, but was discharged because superiors considered him “suicidal,” according to prosecutors. From there, he worked a series of dead-end jobs — a vitamin factory, a car wash — and converted to Islam in 2004, soon attaching himself to an extremist sect at a Queens mosque and radicalizing over the internet.
He went to Pakistan in 2007, and over the course of a year received weapons and explosives training, twice was sent out on unsuccessful missions to target U.S. bases with rockets and mortars, volunteered to be a suicide bomber, and brainstormed plots with leaders of still active al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan.
But the deep penetration, according to Vinas’ later testimony in court, was almost serendipitous. He volunteered for suicide duty because he was reeling from altitude sickness, he said, and then was booted because he didn’t do well enough in religious training. And when he was captured in November 2008 by Pakistanis, he was an easy mark, starting to cooperate “within days,” prosecutors say.
One terror expert later described Vinas to CNN as a “Forrest Gump” figure who ended up with valuable information almost through happenstance. Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, says that Vinas’ story appears to have much in common with a later generation of young “wannabe” terror defendants attracted to the Islamic State who never leave the U.S.
“They can’t find their bearings, they can’t find a place that will accept them,” she said.
Vinas faces up to life in prison on his 2009 plea to conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, providing material support to a terrorist group and receiving military training from a terror organization. Federal sentencing guidelines call for at least 30 years. But two key elements are in his favor.
Though he admitted to participating in three attempted rocket and mortar attacks on U.S. bases, none succeeded. And he was by all accounts a terrific cooperator. His lawyers say he was the “proximate cause” of al-Qaida’s demise, and the government credits him with providing “unparalleled insight” into al-Qaida’s means, methods and operations.
Mitch Silber, a former NYPD intelligence director, argues a light sentence would send a valuable message. “Leniency may show former and current American extremists and ‘wannabe’ terrorists that there is a way to come in from the cold,” he said.
Prosecutors have made no specific recommendation, calling the crimes “extremely serious” but urged Garaufis to take into account Vinas’ substantial, truthful, timely and extensive aid. Vinas’ lawyers are urging a sentence of time served. They say he knows that he’ll always have a target on his back because of his betrayal of his ex-colleagues, and is dreaming of a career as a counterterrorism expert whenever he is released.
“While Mr. Vinas cannot take back his mistakes,” they said in a sentencing letter to Garaufis, “he has done everything in his power to make up for them.”