A young man whose journey from Patchogue to Pakistan took him to an al-Qaida training camp and an attack on a U.S. military base emerged yesterday as a key player in al-Qaida plots against area mass transit systems, as he continued to cooperate in multiple investigations of international terrorism.
Bryant Neal Vinas, 26, was captured in Pakistan in November. He pleaded guilty secretly in January to aiding in a 2008 rocket attack on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, training with al-Qaida and supplying information on city subways and the Long Island Rail Road to the terrorist group, according to Brooklyn federal court records unsealed yesterday.
Following in the footsteps of previous American terror trainees such as John Walker Lindh and Jose Padilla, the licensed truck driver who grew up in Medford provided information after his arrest in Peshawar that led to a warning to area commuters in November about a possible attack on mass transit, law enforcement officials told Newsday.
"He . . . turned on his country," one official said, calling Vinas "the real deal."
Son of immigrants
Vinas was the Catholic son of Peruvian and Argentine immigrants, a tall man who played baseball growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Medford, and then began wearing a skullcap and robes after converting to Islam at the Islamic Association of Long Island mosque in Selden about three years ago, his relatives told the Los Angeles Times.
His father told the paper that the younger Vinas became "reclusive and headstrong," and then disappeared in late 2007, heading to Pakistan. "I think, so many times, is he in trouble?" Juan Vinas said.
The government charged that Vinas used a number of aliases - "Ibrahim," "Bashir al-Ameriki," "Ben Yameen al-Kanadee" - while conspiring to kill American soldiers beginning in March 2008. That September, he and others attempted one attack on a U.S. base in Afghanistan and "fired rockets" in another attack, according to court papers.
In addition to conspiracy, Vinas also pleaded guilty to receiving "military-type training" from al-Qaida between March and November 2008, and to providing "expert advice and assistance, including assistance derived from specialized knowledge of the New York transit system and Long Island Rail Road, communications equipment and personnel, including himself" to al-Qaida.
Some published reports Wednesday indicated that a plot to blow up LIRR trains in Penn Station had been discussed, but officials refused to provide additional details on the plot or to say if Vinas' "specialized knowledge" involved information beyond that available to regular riders - such as maps, schedules and staffing on trains.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said Wednesday that Vinas had never been employed by the transit system or its vendors.
"As part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the MTA has been in constant communication with local and federal authorities as the investigation involving Bryant Neal Vinas developed," said a spokesman. "There was never an imminent threat to the system."
Vinas was indicted and secretly arraigned as a "John Doe" in November. U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis approved closing the courtroom and sealing the courtroom on grounds of national security, according to transcripts he unsealed Wednesday.
National security issues
He continued the secrecy orders when Vinas pleaded guilty in January, saying that disclosing the plea would compromise the confidentiality of "ongoing investigations of serious and violent crimes" and government efforts to gather "information of potential importance to protect the national security."
Federal prosecutors would not elaborate on the court records and Vinas' lawyer, federal defender Len Kamdang, did not return a call for comment.
But law enforcement sources confirmed that Vinas has cooperated since his arrest, describing his experiences with al-Qaida and providing substantial assistance on overseas cases, including a suicide plot involving three Belgians.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the Vinas case illustrates why mosques must monitor radicalism in their midst, one of his long-standing political talking points.
"There are a number of mosques under surveillance by law enforcement on Long Island and they've had radical speakers," said King. "I'm not saying they [the mosques] are involved in criminal activities, but they are not cooperating with law enforcement."
At the Islamic Association of Long Island mosque in Selden Wednesday its imam rejected him. "If he is al-Qaida, he should be arrested. He's a terrorist," said Imam Aziz. "Islam is a peaceful religion."
With Alfonso A. Castillo, Thomas Maier and Bart Jones.