NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge decided to spare an admitted homegrown terrorist known as Bashir the American a long prison term on Thursday, agreeing he should instead receive a sentence of time served — about eight years in mostly solitary confinement — as credit for becoming a prized U.S. government cooperator.
Bryant Neal Vinas, 34, grew up in obscurity on Long Island before becoming a militant Muslim convert, relocating to an outlaw region of Pakistan and scheming with senior al-Qaida members on how best to attack the Long Island Rail Road.
"To say I'm remorseful would be an understatement," Vinas, his face pale, said in a flat voice in federal court in Brooklyn before hearing his sentence.
Outside court, his lawyers said he was relieved and grateful.
Vinas, of Patchogue, had pleaded guilty in 2009 to 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.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis ordered Vinas to remain jailed another 90 days while authorities assess his security needs as someone in likely danger for betraying the terror group and put him on probation for life. The judge also agreed with prosecutors that mental health treatment, vocational training and continued cooperation should be mandatory.
Referring to his cooperation, the judge cautioned, "You have made the most out of that opportunity, and I implore you to do that now."
In a letter to the judge, prosecutors wrote that 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.
The government sealed 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, it said Vinas "did 100 interviews, reviewed approximately 1,000 photographs and contributed to the opening and closing of more than 30 investigations."
Vinas also testified at the trial of one of three New York City men convicted in a foiled plot in 2009 to bomb the subway system and gave statements against French and Belgian defendants accused of going to Pakistan to join al-Qaida.
Vinas' father and sister attended the sentencing but declined through his lawyers to talk about him. Court papers give some glimpses of his background — how his parents divorced when he was 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.
He thereafter "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 admitted participating in two rocket attacks on U.S. forces.
The U.S.-born recruit, nicknamed Bashir al-Ameriki, was relentless enough to catch 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 subway system, authorities said. In the summer of 2008, he recommended placing a suitcase bomb that could explode on a moving train, preferably inside a tunnel where a number of train lines converge on Manhattan, a scheme that apparently was never set in motion.
Vinas' lawyers, in court papers, called him "a complex individual now on the path to redemption," with hopes of becoming a counterterrorism expert.
Prosecutors sounded less hopeful. Though possibly 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."