IN 2007, Bryant Neal Vinas left Long Island for Pakistan, where he told friends he planned to study religion. He left a box with some of his belongings with a friend. Inside was a necklace of dog tags Vinas had made for himself, several baseball caps he loved to wear, and a book - "Inside the Jihad."
The account comes from Victor Kuilan, a 26-year-old Selden man who says he grew up with Vinas, attending Longwood schools with him and praying alongside him at the Islamic Association of Long Island in Selden.
The FBI now says the 26-year-old North Patchogue man went on to attend al-Qaida terrorist training camp and provided information to the organization for a possible attack on the LIRR. Vinas also allegedly participated in a rocket attack on U.S. soldiers at a base in Afghanistan.
"I don't really know what happened to him," said Kuilan, who described Vinas as a sometimes lonely figure who in his early 20s began to act strangely. Kuilan provided several photographs of Vinas, and they were verified by Nayyar Imam, president of the Islamic Association. Newsday paid an associate of Kuilan for the photographs, which depict Vinas posing with friends on Long Island and on a vacation in Puerto Rico.
Kuilan has been arrested several times in the past seven years, all misdemeanors, including disorderly conduct and weapons and marijuana violations. In response to the charges, Kuilan said the weapon involved, a broken Taser, and the marijuana belonged to a friend.
An ordinary and shy kid
Vinas' early life on Long Island was from outward appearances unremarkable and apparently happy. When he was around 11 years old, Vinas served as an altar boy at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in Patchogue, said Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
Kuilan said he had known Vinas since they attended junior high school together. He said Vinas was a would-be athlete, trying out for the wrestling team, playing baseball and enjoying boxing at Kuilan's house.
At Longwood High School, he described Vinas as shy with girls, always wearing the ball caps, and having difficult relations with his mother and sister at home. Still, "he was a very happy-go-lucky, very wholesome guy," Kuilan said.
After high school, Vinas reportedly went into the military. Later, back on Long Island, Vinas worked at a lawn care company in Patchogue and later as a forklift operator, Kuilan said.
A critical turn in Vinas' life apparently came three or four years ago when Kuilan introduced him to Islam and encouraged him to go to the mosque. Vinas quickly became enthusiastic. At one point he disappeared for two or three weeks, underwent a conversion, and returned a devout follower of his new religion. He even walked around wearing a traditional skullcap, known as a kufi.
"Bryant was inquisitive," Kuilan said. "He asked a lot of questions."
But he continued to be extremely shy. At the mosque he was largely a stranger to the people - doctors, professors, businessmen, store owners - who worship at the white, one-story building.
"He was totally out of it," said Imam. "He was a loner. He never fit in. He was just in and out" for short prayer services four or five times a week.
Around 2006, Kuilan noticed Vinas was acting oddly. Vinas started talking about going to Pakistan to fight. He said he wanted to fight America. After people objected to his talk, he then stopped talking about fighting, and by the time he left was speaking more about religious study overseas, Kuilan said.
"We were putting distance between ourselves and Bryant," Kuilan said.
By his own admission, Vinas left Long Island in the fall of 2007, intent on traveling to Pakistan to join a jihadist group to fight American soldiers in Afghanistan. Shortly before then he dropped off the box of belongings at the home of Kuilan's brother.
After that, Kuilan said he and Vinas' old friends never heard from him and only knew what happened to him this week when his arrest made international headlines.
Said Kuilan: "I couldn't believe it."