Published July 23, 2009
NEW YORK – An American man charged with giving Al Qaeda information on the New York transit system and attacking a U.S. military base in Afghanistan has been a secret witness in the fight against terror both here and overseas, authorities revealed Wednesday.
Court papers unsealed in federal court in Brooklyn identified the defendant as Bryant Neal Vinas, nicknamed "Ibrahim" or "Bashir al-Ameriki," who grew up on Long Island.
His identity had been kept secret since his indictment late last year. Court papers show he pleaded guilty in January in a sealed courtroom in Brooklyn and remains in U.S. custody in New York.
Federal prosecutors refused to discuss Vinas' background Wednesday, and no court appearances were scheduled. But a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the case, said Vinas provided critical information that led to a security alert about the New York City subway system last year.
Authorities issued an alert around Thanksgiving last year saying the FBI had received a "plausible but unsubstantiated" report that Al Qaeda terrorists in late September may have discussed attacking the subway system around the holidays. The origin of that report, the official said, was Vinas.
The official described Vinas as a militant convert who was captured last year in Pakistan.
Prosecutors charged Vinas in a rocket attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan in September 2008. Court papers allege he also gave "expert advice and assistance ... on the New York transit system and Long Island Railroad."
For five months last year, Vinas received "military-style training" from Al Qaeda, according to court papers.
Also, a defense attorney in a terrorism case in Belgium said prosecutors there traveled to New York earlier this year to interview Vinas. The lawyer said Vinas had provided a statement against the French and Belgium defendants charged with going to Pakistan to volunteer to fight with Al Qaeda.
Vinas' attorney, Len Kamdang, wouldn't comment, other than requesting "the public withhold judgment in this case until all of the facts become available."
A woman who answered a family phone number found in public records said she was the Vinas' mother and had not seen her son since he moved out 10 years ago at age 18.
"He's a stranger to me," she said before hanging up without giving her name.
There was no answer at the door of a family address in Patchogue.
Vinas' Peruvian-born father, Juan, told Newsday in a recent interview that federal agents had interviewed him. He said he didn't know where his son was.
"The FBI asked me all kinds of questions about him, but they don't tell me nothing," he said.
In sealing the courtroom for the January guilty plea, a judge said that a public plea could harm a confidential investigation involving national security.