The radicalization of an all-American kid


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Editor's note: This article, the first of two parts, is the result of a 10-month CNN investigation into the case of Bryant Neal Vinas, an American al Qaeda recruit featured in the one-hour documentary "American Al Qaeda" to air on Saturday, May 15, and Sunday, May 16, at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET.

The radicalization of an all-American kid​


(CNN) -- The young al Qaeda fighter must have stood out among the others creeping up a mountain on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, trying to get a good vantage on a U.S. base.
Though armed with rockets and on the same deadly mission as his comrades, he was an American -- out to kill the soldiers of his own country.
Not long ago, he had been an altar boy, a kid growing up in a middle-class suburb on Long Island, New York, a teenager with a passion for baseball -- and the Mets.
Now he was known by his Muslim name, Ibrahim, or by his fighting name: Bashir al Ameriki, "the American."
It was September 2008, and it had been just a year since Bryant Neal Vinas, then 25, had left the United States in pursuit of a goal that became an obsession: to fight his fellow countrymen in Afghanistan.
Vinas was arrested last year and confessed to assisting al Qaeda in a plan to bomb the Long Island Rail Road. He is one of 17 American citizens and longtime residents of the United States to be implicated in terrorist activity in the last year, a surge in the rate with which such cases have emerged. At a time when U.S. counterterrorism officials are becoming alarmed at growing support for al Qaeda in the United States, Vinas' story sheds light on how and why some young American Muslims are becoming radicalized enough to want to kill in the name of al Qaeda.
"There's clearly been an acceleration in radicalization in the United States," said Mitch Silber, the director of intelligence analysis at the New York Police Department. "Bryant Neal Vinas is almost a poster child for the process, the unremarkable nature of the people who might go through this process and frankly the potential to link up with al Qaeda and the danger that presents."
"We've almost called Vinas the Forrest Gump of the jihad in the sense that he seems to find this way to get himself involved in operations or attacks that seem way beyond [what] a 20-some odd convert from Long Island should be involved in," Silber said.
Born in the USA
Unlike some of the Americans linked to terrorism plots, Bryant Neal Vinas was not a naturalized citizen. He was born in Queens, New York, and grew up in Medford, a suburb just off the Long Island Expressway.
His father, Juan, was an engineer from Peru who immigrated to the United States four years before Bryant was born, on December 4, 1982. His mother, Maria Luisa, was from Argentina. Vinas' sister, Lina, is three years younger than he.
"What happened to our family could happen to any American family and we want to do what we can to warn other families," said Vinas' mother, who spoke to CNN in the family home in Medford, where she still lives with her daughter.
His mother describes Vinas as a sweet, charming, young child with a kind heart.
"He would fix me breakfast in bed if I was sick," she recalled.
Lina Vinas, who works as a caregiver, says she was very close to her brother when they were young. At school, he was "protective of me," she said, and popular with his teachers.
She recalled he also saved her from drowning once when she ventured to the deep end of a swimming pool.
Lina and her brother were raised Catholic at the insistence of their father. Bryant was an altar boy and often was asked to read the scriptures during Sunday services, Lina recalled.
Though he had many hobbies -- piano, guitar and Japanese anime -- his one constant passion was baseball. During high school, he was on the junior varsity team.
"He took baseball very seriously. Seriously enough to bike ride to high school -- which would take half an hour -- to practice," said Carvin Desroches, who lived a few houses from the Vinases and has known Vinas since he was age 8.
But Vinas' happy childhood ended when he was 14 and his father left his mother for another woman.
"He never accepted it," his mother said. "He cried and screamed. He had a huge temper."
Not long afterward, Vinas started acting out, becoming increasingly rebellious and disrespectful.
Eventually, Bryant's mother gave up custody of him because he became too much to handle. He later moved in with his father.
He grew his hair long and got into rap music, especially Big Pun, a Puerto Rican rapper whose lyrics were expletive-filled, violent and sexually charged.
"He thought R&B was for sissies," Desroches recalled.
His lifestyle could not have been more different than his taste in music. As a teenager he rarely got into fights, never drank alcohol and did not have a reputation for chasing after girls, according to his friends.
At 16, he became interested in evangelical Christianity, his mother said, and sometimes asked her to drive him to a nearby church.
"Bryant seemed to be searching for something," she said.
His father's infidelity, one person close to Vinas said, had left him disillusioned with Catholicism. At Longwood High, a massive school where it is easy for a student to get lost in the crowd, Vinas kept to himself, often wandering the halls alone, according to classmates.
Alex Acevedo befriended him.
"We just clicked like regular buddies," he said. "I showed him openness and I believe that's why we became so close."
They were in some ways opposites.
"He was not caught up with going out partying. He was always straight edge. I never had a beer with him. ... He always did his homework on time," Acevedo recalled.
Acevedo and Vinas became part of a small, tight-knit group, several of whom were of Puerto Rican descent.
Vinas had a reputation for being gullible, said one of those friends, Roberto Dillan.
"If you told him that Toyota was the best car but he really liked Mazdas then maybe he'd go for the Toyota. He was easily swayed. Maybe that's what happened with the religious aspect later."
In the Army
When planes piloted by al Qaeda hijackers struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Vinas had just graduated from high school.
Like so many other young Americans affected by that seminal event, he would soon join the Army.
"He just felt proud," Acevedo recalled.
But others thought he may have been influenced as much by his friends' aspirations as his own sense of public duty.
"He did not stand out as being patriotic or anti-patriotic," said Dillan, who with another friend of Vinas' joined the Coast Guard.
Vinas did not last long at boot camp. His military records, obtained by CNN, show he spent one month in infantry training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, between March 12 and April 11, 2002.
The records do not indicate why he was discharged, but according to family members it may have been that he suffered from asthma.
"He said it was good at one point but ... too difficult for him," Acevedo said.
Vinas was dispirited when he returned to Long Island. He began to spend time with Acevedo's half-brother, Victor Kuilan, who converted to Islam at 16 and was an aspiring professional boxer.
"He started asking me all sorts of questions" about Islam, Kuilan recalled.
To satisfy his friend's curiosity, Kuilan handed Vinas an English language version of the Quran. Kuilan said he warned Vinas that converting to Islam would lead to further tensions with his family.
According to Acevedo, it took Vinas only two days to read the Quran. Just a few weeks later, he converted.
Without telling either Acevedo or Kuilan, Vinas recited the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, at the Al Falah mosque in Corona, Queens.
The mosque, run by the Muslim missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat, would have been familiar to Vinas as it was just a few doors away from the house his parents were living in when he was born.
"He simply told me he had changed his religion, that was it," Vinas' father recalled. "Early on, he tried to persuade me to convert, too."
"The Tablighi Jamaat took a strong hold of Bryant," Kuilan said.
Vinas would often drive up to New York City to take part in the group's missionary work, going out into neighborhoods and knocking on doors.
The Tablighi Jamaat is a worldwide movement with hundreds of thousands of followers. Although largely apolitical, its followers have a reputation for zealousness, which counterterrorism officials worry can make them vulnerable to radical influences.
Closer to home, Vinas started attending the Islamic Association of Long Island Masjid in Selden, a mosque widely regarded as espousing a mainstream interpretation of Islam. Niamatullah Ibrahim, the mosque's caretaker, would become his closest friend at the mosque.
Ibrahim said Vinas did not like to speak about his conversion. But Kuilan, who also attended the Selden mosque, said Vinas plunged himself into his new religion with the zeal of a new convert, praying five times a day and refraining from eating pork.
The rules and regulations of Islam seemed to fit his personality.
"He was always straight-edge, even before he was a Muslim," Kuilan said, "[so after he converted] he was still the same Bryant that everybody knew."
Roberto Dillan agreed Vinas was his normal friendly self at first. But by the time Dillan left for the Coast Guard in December 2002, Vinas' increasingly fervent views had soured their friendship.
On one occasion Vinas reprimanded Dillan for cooking pork. On another Vinas snapped during one of their discussions, "What did Jesus ever do for me?"
Trip to Cuba
Around 2004, Vinas started working as a forklift truck operator. He was also growing increasingly passionate about boxing, often sparring with Victor Kuilan and other young Muslim boxers.
But he was growing increasingly restless on Long Island.
"He always wanted to travel, to get away. He would actually eat cereal, day in, day out, just so he could save," Acevedo said.
A financial settlement from a leg injury in a forklift truck accident, Acevedo said, gave Vinas the funds he needed to travel. His plan: to go to Cuba, where he hoped to receive additional boxing training.
Vinas made two trips to Cuba, gaining entry illegally, and spent several months there, according to Acevedo.
They were trips that Vinas relished.
Cuban women warmed to him much more than American girls ever had, he told Acevedo. They were easily enticed by simple gifts such as the hair conditioner and lingerie he brought from the United States. Vinas' conversion to Islam had changed his lifestyle in many ways, but had not affected his sexual desires.
"Going to Cuba was a way to get his fill," Acevedo said.
The trips to Cuba foreshadowed his travel to al Qaeda's camps in Pakistan, according to the NYPD's Silber.
"It's almost a challenge for him. Extreme travel had some sort of appeal to him, being almost a countercultural type of approach."
Vinas was not able to return to Cuba a third time and was forced to end a relationship he'd begun with a young woman there, he would later tell investigators. She was the daughter of a boxing instructor, and they'd begun to share an apartment.
"It hurt him a lot that he had to tell her that they couldn't be together no more," Acevedo recalled.
Back on Long Island, Vinas approached his Muslim faith with renewed vigor.
"He would spend all his time in front of the computer, reading the Quran and accessing religious websites," his father recalled. "He was also learning Arabic on the computer through discs that he had purchased."
It was during this time that Vinas became disillusioned with the apolitical worldview of the Tablighi Jamaat and attracted to a more "hard-line" interpretation of Islam.
He began spending time at the Selden mosque in the company of Ahmad Zarinni, who took Vinas under his wing, according to one mosque member.
The son of Afghan parents who immigrated to the Selden area, Zarinni attended high school on Long Island and studied at the local Stony Brook University, according to records obtained by CNN.
But by all accounts, he never integrated into American society.
He worked part time at a cell phone store owned by a mosque member but quit after the owner refused to stop selling ringtones.
Zarinni, according to the owner, regarded music as "haram," prohibited by Islam. The chairman of the Selden mosque said Zarinni's application to teach children there was turned down because of concerns about his fundamentalist views.
Vinas, meanwhile, was starting to surf extremist websites.
"There's still a lot of questions about precisely what he was doing on the internet, but certainly there's evidence to believe that he [was] getting encouragement on these websites that jihad was permissible," the NYPD's Silber told CNN.
Acevedo said the websites contributed to Vinas' emerging conviction that the United States was at war with Islam.
Acevedo remembered him as "always pissed off, always mad."
Although he could not recall Vinas surfing any jihadist sites, he said Vinas became obsessed with online conspiracy theories such as one that said the United States, not al Qaeda, was responsible for 9/11.
A YouTube video that Acevedo said Vinas viewed alleged that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was planning to round up Americans and place them in concentration camps.
Vinas, Acevedo said, became convinced that Muslims would be the target.
"He was scared eventually he would be put in a concentration camp because of the way he thought. It was telling him to get out, get out of the country."
One day the caretaker at the Selden mosque was sitting next to Vinas in the public library and saw that he was staring at his computer, mesmerized by an account of Joseph Cohen, a Jew who converted to Islam.
Known by his Muslim name, Yousef al Khattab, Cohen was then the chief ideologue of the Islamic Thinkers Society, an extremist group supportive of al Qaeda and based in New York, according to counterterrorism officials.
Vinas' friend Zarinni was already part of the group. Soon, Vinas too would be moving in its circles, a path that would lead to al Qaeda's camps in the mountains of Pakistan.
Preaching jihad in the U.S.
The Islamic Thinkers Society has not faced restrictions in spreading its message within the United States because of freedom of speech protections.
"As much as the Islamic Thinkers Society might put out an extremist message, it seems they go right up to the line of the First Amendment. For the most part, they themselves as a group aren't acting," said Silber.
Listen to Silber's comments on the group
Terrorism experts believe that groups like the Islamic Thinkers Society are dangerous nonetheless.
"Even if they do not have the connections to help [young radicals] go further, they articulate the glory of fighting jihad," said Marc Sageman, a former scholar in residence at the NYPD.
CNN located online video footage of Zarinni participating in Islamic Thinkers Society rallies in Manhattan in June 2005 and February 2006.
Such overt displays of militancy increasingly put Zarinni on the radar of U.S. counterterrorism officials, who described him as becoming a leading figure in the group.
Zarinni has refused to answer CNN's questions about his participation in Islamic Thinkers Society rallies and his friendship with Vinas.
Officials say it was Zarinni who introduced Vinas to the Islamic Thinkers Society. At the Islamic Thinkers Society, Vinas would get to know one of its followers, Ahmer Qayyum.
U.S. counterterrorism officials said Qayyum, a Pakistani national, would play a key role in Vinas' journey to al Qaeda camps in Pakistan, something Qayyum denies.
CNN tracked down and interviewed Qayyum in Lahore, Pakistan.
When Vinas met him, Qayyum had been living in New York for several years, having come to the United States to pursue his education. He was by no means radical himself during his first years in the United States.
Between 2002 and 2004, he attended the William Esper Studio, a prestigious acting school in Manhattan whose graduates include Hollywood stars such as Jeff Goldblum, Larry David and Gretchen Mol.
Acquaintances there said Qayyum was not then overtly religious. In fact they recalled that he attended the school in defiance of his father back in Pakistan, whose traditional views meant he frowned upon acting as a career.
After graduating from William Esper and struggling to land any acting jobs, Qayyum became much more fervent in his religious beliefs.
In 2006, former classmates received long e-mails from Qayyum imploring them to convert to Islam. By then Qayyum had grown his beard long and was regularly taking part in Islamic Thinker Society protests in New York.
What drew Qayyum to the Islamic Thinkers Society was his anger over U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and U.S. support for Israel, he said.
"They [the U.S.] are attacking the Muslim countries for their goods, for their resources and I mean they [the Islamic Thinkers Society] were pretty vocal about it and I liked them for that," Qayyum told CNN. "The evil American empire is not going to last too long, inshallah."
The influence of others
Friends said they believe Vinas was brainwashed by extremists.
"Somebody put the bug in his ear," said Acevedo.
Another said Vinas was not happy because of tensions with his family and lack of full-time employment, making him easy prey.
The Islamic Thinkers Society and other like-minded groups have been a concern to U.S. counterterrorism officials for several years.
"In a sense they are almost bug lights for aspiring jihadists," Silber said.
Qayyum said Vinas started hanging out in Islamic Thinkers Society circles but said Vinas was not as active in the group's activities as others.
Qayyum said that he met Vinas through Zarinni and the three of them became very close.
U.S. counterterrorism officials said they were able to establish that Vinas had attended several meetings of the Islamic Thinkers Society.
The "chief ideologue" of the Islamic Thinkers Society during this time was Khattab, the American Jewish convert to Islam whose story had intrigued Vinas.
Khattab had close connections to two of Vinas' friends, Qayyum and Zarinni. Khattab told CNN that he knew Zarinni well, even helping arrange a marriage-match for him.
Zarinni was regarded as extremist even within Islamic Thinkers Society circles, Khattab said.
Khattab acknowledged meeting Vinas but said it was only once or twice.
Counterterrorism officials said they believe Khattab met Vinas on several occasions.
"Vinas was looking for someone who could provide him guidance. And in that role, Yousef al Khattab was the person to go see," said Silber.
Khattab denied he shaped Vinas' worldview, but makes no secret of his own sympathy for al Qaeda.
"I love Osama bin Laden like I can't begin to tell you," he said.
Eventually, Vinas' views led to a confrontation with Ibrahim, the caretaker of the Selden mosque. Three friends in Vinas' Muslim circle told CNN in separate interviews that Vinas told the caretaker he wanted to travel overseas to fight jihad.
Ibrahim said he does not recall that conversation, only that Vinas said Muslims should go fight against Israel.
As a result of the confrontation, according to Vinas' friends, he stopped going to the Selden mosque. He began hanging out with friends, including Victor Kuilan and Acevedo, at a mosque in a wooded area of Coram, Long Island.
Kuilan said Vinas often vented his anger over U.S foreign policy.
"Nothing was taboo," he said, "and I didn't disagree with everything that Bryant was saying."
Vinas was so immersed in extremist ideology, Kuilan said, that he took up Osama bin Laden's injunction to stop paying U.S. taxes so they would stop funding America's war on Islam.
What agitated Vinas most of all, Kuilan said, was U.S. support for Israel.
Kuilan said he eventually became alarmed at Vinas' increasingly radical views and distanced himself. When Vinas began to express the desire to travel to Pakistan to join jihadists, Kuilan said, he never thought Vinas would actually follow through.
"To fight American soldiers, yeah ... it was on his mind," Acevedo said. "I didn't take him serious, though ... I didn't think he was going to go kill somebody, you know. I didn't think it could be that simple, that you could be like, 'OK, the [U.S.] military is really aggravating me. Let me go to Pakistan.' "
Journey to Pakistan
Vinas was on a mission: to find the connections he needed to hook up with militants in Pakistan. In summer 2007, he traveled to Atlantic City to visit Khattab, who had moved there from New York for a few months.
"I suspect that he was asking him for connections, for names in Pakistan," a U.S. counterterrorism source told CNN.
If this was the case, Vinas may have been disappointed. Counterterrorism officials said they believe that although Khattab may have inspired Vinas, he likely did not have the contacts Vinas needed.
Khattab said Vinas never spoke to him about wanting to go to Pakistan or to fight overseas. Khattab said Vinas came to Atlantic City with some "brothers" to meet with him and hear the story of how he converted from Judaism to Islam.
"He [Vinas] gave me a big hug when I met him," Khattab recalled. "We ate shrimp in an Atlantic City shrimp bar and walked along the boardwalk."
Khattab refused to divulge who the "brothers" accompanying Vinas were.
"I don't kiss and tell," he said.
U.S counterterrorism officials said they believe Vinas became frustrated with leading figures within the Islamic Thinkers Society.
"The pattern we see is a lot of these [radicalized] individuals at a certain point realize that these groups are just talkers," said Silber. "And those that are serious about the jihad will leave these groups."
But there was one Islamic Thinkers Society follower who allegedly had the connections Vinas needed.
U.S. counterterrorism officials said Vinas' Pakistani friend, Ahmer Qayyum, agreed to help him. Qayyum denied it.
Counterterrorism officials said they believe their mutual friend, Zarinni, also knew of Vinas' plans.
In an interview with CNN, Qayyum acknowledged that he and Vinas made plans to fly to Pakistan in September 2008, but said Vinas wanted to travel to Pakistan to study Islam and be treated for back pain.
"He was in severe pain, lower back, and I knew about this guy [in Pakistan] who used to cure people." Qayyum said.
In the weeks before his departure, Vinas dropped all talk of fighting jihad with his close friends on Long Island. "He came to me and asked me my opinion about whether he should go to a madrassa in Pakistan ... and if I wanted to go with him," Kuilan recalled.
In retrospect, he said he thinks Vinas was masking his true intentions.
With his travel plans made, Vinas seemed happier. Kuilan recalled Vinas' "whole demeanor lightened up."
Acevedo remembered going to a gun range with Vinas.
"We probably shot a good 200 rounds," he recalled. "He just felt free."
Two weeks later, Vinas told Kuilan goodbye, saying he was going to study in Pakistan.
Vinas' farewell to Acevedo was more emotional. As a parting gift, Vinas left him a book, "Inside the Jihad," about a French spy who claimed to have infiltrated al Qaeda.
It was then that Acevedo understood Vinas' true intentions.
"I asked him, when are you coming back?" said Acevedo.
His best friend's response still haunts him: "I'm not coming back. I will call you in your dreams."


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
From Long Island to Lahore: The plot to bomb New York


(CNN) -- On the eve of the sixth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Bryant Neal Vinas boarded a flight from New York to Lahore, Pakistan.
The 24-year-old lifelong New Yorker had enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school, in part because of that seminal event. Now he was a recruit of a different kind, on his way to join al Qaeda in waging holy war against U.S. troops.
A Muslim convert now known as Ibrahim, he would eventually earn a fighting name: Bashir al Ameriki, "the American."
But when Vinas landed in Lahore on September 12, 2007, he had little idea how to achieve his goal. He had never been to Pakistan. He had no connections to jihadists in the country, and though he had started to learn Arabic, he did not speak Urdu or Pashto, the country's main languages.
He had left the United States without telling his parents or sister where he was going. And he had hidden his true intentions from many of his close Muslim friends on Long Island.
But investigators suspect two of Vinas' friends at the Islamic Thinkers Society, a pro-al Qaeda extremist organization in New York, knew what he was up to.
One of those, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials, was Ahmer Qayyum, whose hometown was Lahore.
Vinas had planned to travel to Pakistan with him, but Qayyum was, by his own account, delayed a few days.
"We had planned to come back, like, together but ... I had to, like, work for a few extra days in the [United] States ... and he arrived in Lahore before me," Qayyum told CNN.
He denied knowing Vinas' intentions and said he believed his friend was merely on his way to study the Quran at a madrassa, or religious school.
Within a few days, Qayyum joined Vinas in Lahore. Vinas, Qayyum said, was staying in a guest house in the Firdous Market district, a bustling neighborhood near the main cricket stadium.
As Vinas acclimated to the hot, crowded city, Qayyum said he spent time with his friend, joining him on occasion to pray in mosques.
After several weeks, Qayyum said, Vinas left to attend a madrassa in Peshawar, near the border with Afghanistan. Qayyum said he helped Vinas arrange his trip to the madrassa, but denied Vinas was planning to fight jihad.
But counterterrorism officials told CNN they believe Qayyum is the "fixer" Vinas referred to in an interview with authorities after his arrest. In that interview, Vinas told officials that a "friend from New York ... agreed to help him and introduce him to people who could assist him in getting to Afghanistan."
In that question-and-answer session, held in the presence of Belgian magistrates in the FBI offices in New York in March 2009, Vinas provided details about his time in Pakistan.
The Belgian document, which was entered into evidence in a recent trial of an alleged Belgian al Qaeda cell in Brussels, was provided to CNN by a defense lawyer in the case and authenticated by a U.S. prosecutor and Vinas' defense lawyer.
The following account is based on the Belgian document, as well as interviews with counterterrorism agents and others close to the investigation.
Much of it is drawn from Vinas' own statements to investigators, contained in the Belgian document. In late September 2007, when Vinas traveled to Peshawar, a violent Islamist insurgency was brewing in the North West Frontier Province and tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
Two months earlier, Pakistani security services had stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad, killing many Taliban militants who had taken control of the compound, sparking a wave of suicide bombings and attacks across Pakistan.
Deep inside Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, al Qaeda had again built up the capability to launch an attack on the United States, according to a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate published that summer.
After a series of meetings, Vinas and his New York friend found someone who could connect Vinas with Shah Saab, a militant commander conducting armed forays into Afghanistan from Pakistani territory.
Saab took Vinas to his camp in Mohmand in the tribal areas to prepare for a raid against American troops across the border in Afghanistan.
"The group then crossed the border to get into the Konar Province in Afghanistan," according to the Belgian document. "They were a group of 10 to 20 men. The group separated into two further groups; one led a ground attack with guns and rocket-propelled grenades against an Afghan military base.
"Vinas was part of the second group who planned to climb the mountains and stockpile mortars to launch a new attack on an American base," the document says.
"The group eventually decided not to launch the mortar bombs themselves because planes were circulating over the region -- and fearful of being attacked the next night -- the group including S.S. [Shah Saab] returned to Pakistan."
Ready to die
Back in Mohmand, one of Saab's men asked Vinas to become a suicide bomber.
He accepted.
Not only did he want to kill the servicemen of his own country, but he also appeared to be willing to give up his own life to do it.
U.S. counterterrorism officials believe this may have been a test of loyalty for Vinas -- a way to prove he was not an American spy.
"You're going to go through multiple paths, multiple doors before someone trusts this person," said Phil Mudd, deputy head of the FBI's National Security Branch at the time of the Vinas investigation.
Mitch Silber, director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department, believes it was a crucial steppingstone for Vinas.
"His offer to become a suicide bomber obviously gave him some standing and facilitated his ultimate linkup to al Qaeda," Silber said.
After agreeing to become a suicide bomber, Vinas was sent back to Peshawar to receive more instruction. It is possible that Vinas' militant handlers were hatching more ambitious plans for him.
But Vinas said Saab told him that he needed more religious instruction before he could become a suicide bomber.
The young American was growing frustrated. That feeling was shared by another member of Saab's militant group, whose identity CNN was unable to learn.
Together, the two resolved to find the contacts necessary in Peshawar to receive training in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
At first, they were unsuccessful. A series of promises were made, but each time, their contacts did not deliver. Fed up, Vinas set off on his own for the tribal areas of Pakistan.
To evade Pakistani security, Vinas wore a burqa, the head-to-toe covering worn by some Afghan and Pakistani women. But he failed to connect with al Qaeda and returned to Peshawar, disappointed.
With his poor Arabic, Western appearance and lack of contacts who could vouch for him, it was difficult at first for Vinas to win the trust of fighters in the tribal areas.
On his second trip, he was almost killed by militants but managed to talk them into letting him go. Eventually, Vinas met a militant in Peshawar who did have contacts within al Qaeda.
Again, he set off for the tribal areas and made contact with al Qaeda members in North Waziristan. The fighters there, he said, were from places such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. He became friendly with one Yemeni who agreed to vouch for him so he could secure membership in al Qaeda.
In March 2008, Vinas became a full-fledged member of al Qaeda, pledging to obey all orders.
"What characterized you being an al Qaeda member was the fact you followed the orders given to you by leaders ... [you were] totally committed," Vinas later stated.
A new fighting name, "Bashir al Ameriki," completed Vinas' metamorphosis from all-American kid to al Qaeda recruit.
His persistence had paid off.
"That trait would make him potentially very dangerous if he had decided to do some kind of terrorist plot in the West, because he would not have given up," said Marc Sageman, who advised the New York Police Department on the Vinas case.
As an al Qaeda recruit, Vinas found new friends, too. The child of a broken home, Vinas had always treasured his friendships, and in the mountains of Waziristan, he found camaraderie with other fighters.
He hung out with a band of European militants who had traveled to the tribal areas from Belgium and France. While undergoing training, he lived with one of them, Hicham Zrioul, a Belgian-Moroccan taxi driver from Brussels.
After a hard day's training with al Qaeda, Vinas and Zrioul would unwind in their small mountain shack by watching jihadist videos on a Dell computer Zrioul had acquired.
Between March and July 2008, Vinas said he attended three al Qaeda training courses focused on weapons, explosives and rocket-based or propelled weaponry.
During these classes, attended by 10 to 20 recruits, Arab instructors taught Vinas how to handle a large variety of weapons and explosives, some of them of military-grade sophistication.
Vinas said he became familiar with seeing, smelling and touching explosives such as TNT, as well as plastic explosives, including the kind U.S. authorities say was used in al Qaeda's attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
Vinas also learned how to make vests for suicide bombers. The terrorist skills Vinas acquired made him a potentially deadly threat if al Qaeda decided to use him for an attack in the United States.
"Once they go out and gain that operational training -- whether communication security or how to build a device -- their potential for lethality is much greater," said Mudd, the former FBI official who supervised the Vinas investigation.
During a mountain walk one day, Zrioul told Vinas about a planned attack on the Brussels metro, which he called a soft target because of poor security. Vinas said Zrioul also raised the possibility of launching an attack on a European football stadium.
(A senior Belgian intelligence official told CNN that Belgian security services only learned about these conversations in March 2009, after Vinas met with Belgian prosecutors in New York. Although concerned, Belgium's intelligence service concluded that no concrete plot had likely existed).
Despite the threat of U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas, Vinas' handlers allowed him to travel widely, perhaps because curiosity had grown about al Qaeda's valuable new American recruit. But providing the young American with a window-seat view of their strongholds was a decision his handlers would later regret. His potential value to the intelligence services of his own country was growing by the day.
During his travels, Vinas met fighters and leaders from an array of al Qaeda-affiliated groups. At a tribal gathering in North Waziristan, he was introduced to Baitullah Mehsud, then leader of the Pakistani Taliban. (Mehsud was killed by a drone in August 2009.)
Vinas met former bodyguards of Osama bin Laden and a veritable who's who of al Qaeda's top commanders, including the Egyptian operative Mustafa Abu al Yazid, one of al Qaeda's founders, and Attiya Allah, a Libyan al Qaeda ideologue, who helped mentor Vinas.
But the American recruit was told nobody got to meet bin Laden. In July 2008, Vinas completed his final training course and was judged qualified to participate in a missile strike against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
After weeks waiting for orders,Vinas was dispatched with a group to the Afghan border. It was September 2008, almost exactly a year since Vinas had arrived in Pakistan.
As he hiked through the high mountain passes, loaded down with rockets, he was for a second time close to fulfilling a goal that had become an obsession: killing the soldiers of his own country in the name of jihad.
When Vinas' group reached a site overlooking an American base on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, they readied their missiles for launch.
Then, things fell apart.
"The first attack was not launched because of radio communication problems," Vinas would later tell authorities, "but a few days later, I took part in firing rockets at an American base. Although we intended to hit the military base and kill American soldiers, I was informed that the rockets missed and the attack failed."
Afterward, Vinas returned to the al Qaeda encampment in the mountains of Waziristan. U.S. counterterrorism officials said they believe that mission may have been al Qaeda's final test for their American recruit.
"If you want to go to a further level of training, being tested by proving that you'll engage in a fight against American or other forces in Afghanistan is a pretty good test," said the FBI's Mudd.
Al Qaeda leaders now felt comfortable enough to have detailed conversations with Vinas about plans to attack the West, including the United States.
"I consulted with a senior al Qaeda leader and provided detailed information about the operation of the Long Island Rail Road system, which I knew because I had ridden the railroad on so many occasions," Vinas later testified in a U.S. court.
"The purpose of providing information was to help plan a bomb attack of the Long Island Rail Road system."
While Vinas discussed that plot with al Qaeda leaders in September 2008, three young men arrived in the tribal areas from the United States. They, like Vinas, were allegedly intent on fighting American troops in Afghanistan.
Their ringleader was Najibullah Zazi, a Denver, Colorado, taxi driver who had gone to high school in Queens, New York, just a few blocks from where Vinas had lived when he was very young.
Zazi later admitted that he received bomb-making training in al Qaeda camps that fall and was persuaded by al Qaeda to launch attacks on the United States.
In September 2009, the FBI thwarted Zazi's plot to conduct suicide bombings on subway cars in New York, just days before it was about to go into operation, according to court documents outlining Zazi's guilty plea.
While CNN has not been able to establish whether Zazi and Vinas met, the two appear to have been in the same militant circles in the tribal areas in fall 2008, according to European counterterrorism sources.
Vinas, they said, was in touch with an al Qaeda member believed connected to Rashid Rauf, the British al Qaeda operative who allegedly orchestrated Zazi's plot against New York.
Counterterrorism officials said they believed al Qaeda leaders probably would have eventually asked Vinas to take part in an attack on U.S. soil. No evidence has emerged, however, that they did so before his arrest.
Vinas "must have been for them a great opportunity they wanted to exploit," said Silber, of the NYPD, because of his appearance and U.S. passport.
"I think his main value to al Qaeda is the same they've been looking for, really, going back to 9/11," Silber said. "In the sense, who can operate for al Qaeda in the West. Here's an individual who has a lot of appeal to you, who's sort of just shown up on your doorstep."
A personal mission
Vinas stayed in the al Qaeda encampments in the tribal areas until early October, then set off back to Peshawar to devote some time to a more personal mission: He wanted to find a wife.
He called his friend, Ahmer Qayyum, in Lahore to tell him the news. "He gave me a call a couple of times, [to say] like I'm OK, you know. He even said, 'I'm going to get married.' "
But as Vinas walked around the bustling bazaars of Peshawar, U.S. intelligence agencies were closing in on him.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said intelligence agencies had begun tracking Vinas some time before his arrest.
He would not reveal the nature of the tracking or when it began.
That month, FBI agents visited Vinas' father, Juan Vinas, on Long Island, telling him they believed his son was in Pakistan.
But, according to Juan Vinas, they masked their true reasons for inquiring about his son.
The FBI agents then asked if they could search his son's computer and look through his e-mail, which Juan Vinas allowed.
On or around November 14, 2008, Vinas' al Qaeda conspiracy came to an end, according to court papers.
After a tip from their U.S. counterparts, Pakistani security services arrested Vinas in Peshawar and transferred him into American custody.
CNN has not been able to establish the exact date of his arrest.
Vinas' friend Qayyum said he learned of the arrest through the grapevine. He was told Vinas was picked up by Pakistani police in a Peshawar market.
"When something like this happens, I mean a foreigner, you know, getting arrested, it circulates, you know. It's big news," Qayyum said.
Back in the United States, Vinas' father received a call from the FBI, saying that Pakistani authorities had apprehended his son.
"They made it sound like it was for a visa violation and that he would be deported," Juan Vinas recalled.
After that, he said, the FBI did not return any of his calls.
On November 22, Vinas was arraigned in secret in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, on terrorism charges.
Although he initially pleaded not guilty, Vinas started cooperating with U.S. investigators. Just days after his arraignment, federal officials issued an intelligence bulletin warning that al Qaeda had discussed attacking transit systems in the New York metropolitan area, including the city's subway.
This led New York authorities to step up security on the city's mass transit systems. A senior counterterrorism official told CNN that information about the al Qaeda plot came from Vinas and that authorities had acted out of an "abundance of caution."
After Vinas started cooperating, he provided "extremely helpful information" in targeting al Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
"Just by talking about what he saw, telling us what houses and streets operatives were living in, identifying how al Qaeda runs its courier networks, he has provided us priceless information," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told CNN.
"This was actionable intelligence."
In recent years, the CIA has carried out a covert aerial campaign targeting al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas using unmanned drones.
Vinas' arrest coincided with an intensification of the CIA's drone campaign in the tribal areas of Pakistan, strikes that have killed more than a dozen leading al Qaeda operatives in the last two years.
U.S. counterterrorism officials will not comment on whether intelligence from Vinas helped with any specific strike. What officials do acknowledge, however, is that Vinas became a powerful resource in the U.S. war against al Qaeda.
"His intelligence was not just useful in the first few weeks after his capture, but for months afterward," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told CNN. "Vinas was as valuable as having our own agent penetrate al Qaeda. In many ways, the end result was like undertaking a classic intelligence operation."
Not everybody welcomed his cooperation with U.S. authorities.
Yousef al Khattab, the chief ideologue of the Islamic Thinkers Society, said he feels betrayed by Vinas.
"For informing on the people that are fighting in Afghanistan," Khattab said, "I call him a coward."
With such a prized asset in custody, authorities took extraordinary measures to keep Vinas' arrest secret. All court proceedings were kept closed on national security grounds, and his family members were kept in the dark about his arrest.
On January 28, 2009, in a closed-door session in federal court in Brooklyn, Vinas pleaded guilty to all charges against him: conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and receiving military-type training from a foreign terrorist organization.
Vinas faces a maximum of life in prison but could receive a lower sentence if he continues to cooperate.
Sources told CNN that Vinas has come away from his radical views and is cooperating willingly.
On July 22, 2009, news broke of Vinas' arrest after federal authorities unsealed his guilty plea. The revelation that he helped al Qaeda plot a bomb attack in New York came as a shock to his family.
At first his mother could not believe the news.
"He's accused of such horrible things," she told CNN.
In prison, Vinas became increasingly restless and lonely. In August 2009, he wrote a letter to his friend Alex Acevedo, begging him to write back with news.
"You ever see the movie Groundhogs day, [sic] well that's how I feel like every day," Vinas wrote.
Acevedo did not write back.
"I'm pissed off with him. ... It's wrong. He could have been killing his own people on that train," he said.
Other friends of Vinas', however, feel no anger about what he did.
"I feel proud of him. I respect him. ... If I ever meet him, I'm going to hug him. I'm going to love him for what he did," said Ahmer Qayyum, the former Islamic Thinkers Society devotee.
"And if my message can reach him, you know, I mean I just want him to stay strong. I don't think the American evil empire is going to last too long now. Inshallah."
For Vinas' mother and sister, the shock of his arrest has been replaced by terrible disappointment and flashes of anger.
Vinas was no different from most other American teenagers, they said. But now, they feel like they don't know him anymore.
If all this can happen to them, they fear it can happen to another American family.

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