Seeking employment: Terrorist who flipped on al-Qaida
A federal judge on Thursday sentenced Vinas to time served on terrorism charges, a grant of leniency based on the valuable intelligence he gave US authorities after his capture in Pakistan.world Updated: May 13, 2017 08:51 IST
As mid-career resumes go, this one’s a doozy: Bryant Neal Vinas tried to kill US troops in Afghanistan, advised al-Qaida on potential bombing targets, then morphed into a prized informer for the US government.
After eight years in solitary confinement, the 34-year-old New Yorker is set to become a free man. Which raises the question: What in the world does he do next?
A federal judge on Thursday sentenced Vinas to time served on terrorism charges, a grant of leniency based on the valuable intelligence he gave US authorities after his capture in Pakistan. Among other things, he gave up the identities and whereabouts of some of the terror network’s operatives.
Vinas, originally of Patchogue, will remain behind bars for another three months while officials figure out how to protect someone who’s been credited with putting a target on his back by betraying ruthless terrorists.
Once that’s determined, taxpayers will also have to foot the bill to rehabilitate him after years on the fringes serving on both sides of the law.
At least on the issue of how to earn a living, Vinas offered the judge his own vision for a job, counterterrorism analyst.
“I would like to turn a bad thing into a good thing,” he said.
Vinas’ lawyers insisted the idea has merit, saying their client has a “brilliant mind” with a knack for remembering names, faces and locations.
However, his fallback — working in construction — may be more realistic.
Mitch Silber, who headed intelligence analysis at the former New York Police Department before joining the firm FTI Consulting, said someone like Vinas could never get a security clearance or be trusted with sensitive information.
At best, he might convince a think tank to let him “write or speak about his life mistakes and how he would discourage youth from being attracted to” terror groups, Silber said.
There’s a long history of turncoat mobsters disappearing into witness protection after admitting to murder and mayhem and testifying against their bosses, perhaps most notably Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who brought down the notorious John Gotti.
But there is no clear template for a terrorist-turned-government cooperator.
One rare example is Saajid Muhammad Badat, the British man who was picked by al-Qaida along with Richard Reid to carry out the failed “shoe bomb” plot in 2001.
Reid was caught aboard a Paris-to-Miami flight with explosives. Badat backed out and pleaded guilty in a deal that got him an early release from prison in 2010.
Testifying in 2012 at the trial of a New York City man convicted in an al-Qaida plot against the subway, Badat said that he had used a “job seekers allowance” from Scotland Yard to gain employment he didn’t disclose.
The government also paid for job training, housing, travel expenses for his family and even cellphone and internet costs, he said.
Vinas took the witness stand at the same trial, describing how, after growing up on Long Island and converting to an extreme form of Islam, he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2007. With the nickname Bashir al-Ameriki, he won the trust of senior members of al-Qaida.
He even brainstormed with militants about bombing the Long Island Rail Road or a Walmart. Once he was captured, he switched sides and volunteered information that was reliable enough to open and close 30 terror investigations, prosecutors said.
The prosecutors didn’t oppose his release. But they were skeptical enough about his prospects to push a judge to sign off on probation for life, mandatory mental health treatment and further cooperation in future terror cases, if needed.
The US government will pay for his mental health care, job training and any required protection.
In a private conversation after the sentencing, Vinas “was relieved and he was grateful,” said defense attorney Michael Bachrach. “And he was looking forward to his new life.”