US citizen captured in Pakistan gives window into Al Qaeda's world

The New York man is now cooperating with US authorities, providing them with information about terrorist training camps and leaders.

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In a rare opportunity for Western counterintelligence officials, an American citizen who reportedly trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan is now cooperating with authorities.

Bryant Neal Vinas, born in Queens and raised on Long Island, was arrested by Pakistani authorities in November. He was handed over to US authorities and in January pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit murder for a rocket attack on US forces in Afghanistan, receiving military-type training from a terrorist group, and providing material support to a terrorist organization, according to documents unsealed Wednesday.

While an extremely small group of Americans have trained with Al Qaeda overseas, Mr. Vinas may be the first to have had extensive access to top leaders and operational planning meetings. He told authorities that he provided expert information to terrorist leaders about the Long Island Railroad commuter train to help plan a possible attack. The information caused a security clamp down on the railway in November, reports the BBC.

Other information he provided has reportedly helped officials target Al Qaeda camps with drone attacks and arrest key operatives. He also gave a statement that will be used as evidence against three Belgians accused of training with Al Qaeda.

Though Vinas has pleaded guilty, The Wall Street Journal reports that officials have not yet set a sentencing date. This delay likely indicates that authorities are waiting for cases against others that Vinas is assisting with to finish.

While American recruits who venture to Al Qaeda training camps are generally kept at arms length due to suspicions that they could be spies, Vinas seems to have entered the camp through the help of a high-ranking sponsor. NPR reports that Vinas was taken into the group's inner circles.

During his time with Al Qaeda, The New York Times reports that Vinas's background made him extremely valuable to the group and now, for different reasons, he has become an invaluable asset to security authorities.

For the Qaeda leaders in Waziristan along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where Mr. Vinas trained, finding an American-born United States citizen with no criminal record and no previous ties to Islamist groups would seem priceless. He would be able to travel freely through the United States and Europe, with a knowledge of New York's transit systems.
At the same time, Mr. Vinas's cooperation is nearly as valuable a find for Western intelligence and counterterrorism investigators. He had knowledge of several camps he visited, the network that led him there and the high-level Qaeda officials with whom he met.

The case of Vinas, who is Latino-American and was also known in Pakistan as Bashir el Ameriki ("Bashir the American") highlights concerns among security officials that Americans could get terrorism training overseas and easily reenter the US to carry out attacks. Still, the Los Angeles Times reports that there remain very few known cases of Americans training with terrorists overseas.

"His background is clearly unusual," said a senior European official. "I am not aware of other Americans who went with him or who have trained recently in [Pakistan]. . . . He stands out. A Latino American is an unusual profile."
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