American who joined al-Qaida faces sentencing in New York

NEW YORK (AP) — After growing up in obscurity on Long Island, Bryant Neal Vinas became a militant Muslim convert, relocated to an outlaw region of Pakistan and schemed with senior al-Qaida members on how best to attack the Long Island Railroad.

A federal judge must now decide whether the admitted terrorist known as “Bashir al-Ameriki,” or Bashir the American, should be spared a long prison term – and maybe even be freed – for switching sides and becoming a prized U.S. government cooperator.

Vinas, 34, of Patchogue, is due in federal court in Brooklyn on Thursday for sentencing on charges he tried to kill American soldiers and provide support to al-Qaida before Pakistani authorities captured him in 2008 and turned him over to the United States.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis, prosecutors wrote that once in custody, Vinas eagerly became what “may have been the single most valuable cooperating witness” in efforts to identify members of al-Qaida, pinpoint their hideouts and disrupt their terror plots in the late 2000s when the nation was still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks.

Prosecutors haven’t revealed details of classified FBI reports it gave to the judge to show the depth of cooperation known to have prompted security alerts on mass transit systems around New York City. But in court papers, they said Vinas “did 100 interviews, reviewed approximately 1,000 photographs and contributed to the opening and closing of more than 30 investigations.”

He also testified at the trial of one of three New York City men convicted in a foiled plot in 2009 to bomb the subways, and gave statements against French and Belgium defendants accused of going to Pakistan to join al-Qaida.

The government hasn’t recommended a sentence, but the defense has argued the cooperation came at great risk and should be rewarded with a term of time served.

“While Mr. Vinas cannot take back his mistakes, he has done everything in his power to make up for them, and as a result, he will spend the rest of his life with a target on his back,” his lawyers wrote in court papers.

Vina’s family declined through his lawyers to talk about him. But the court papers give some glimpses of his background – how his parents divorced at age 10, how he washed out of the Army after only a few weeks in 2002 and how he left the Catholic faith in favor of an extremist form of Islam in 2004.

After that, he “became increasingly angered by what he perceived to be the persecution of Muslims by Western countries,” and decided to travel to North Waziristan in 2007 to retaliate, the papers say.

After agreeing to become a suicide bomber for a splinter jihadist group, he was introduced to al-Qaida operatives who had him train in explosives and heavy weapons. He has admitted to participating in two rocket attacks on U.S. forces.

The rare American-born recruit caught the attention of al-Qaida leaders who wanted to draw on his knowledge as a regular rider of the LIRR and the New York City subways, authorities said. In the summer of 2008, Vinas recommended placing a suitcase bomb that could explode on a moving train, preferably inside the tunnel where a number of train lines converge on Manhattan – a scheme that apparently was never set in motion.

More than eight years after his capture, his lawyers call Vinas “a complex individual now on the path to redemption,” with hopes of becoming a counterterrorism expert.

Prosecutors sound less hopeful, saying he still needs supervision, mental health treatment and vocational training.

Though he is no longer a terror threat, they wrote, it is difficult “to evaluate Vinas’ current mindset … because he has become increasingly withdrawn and less willing to communicate.”

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