Move over Azzam the American. You may be a spokesman for Al Qaeda, but another American in your midst has stolen the media spotlight. That would be Bryant Neal Vinas, who grew up Roman Catholic on Long Island before converting to Islam and traveling to Pakistan for holy war. He was captured Vinas there last fall while fighting for Al Qaeda and was handed over to U.S. officials. Vinas was brought back to the states, where he cooperated with authorities and last week plead guilty, bringing his sory to light for the first time.
On Friday, Newsday the mosque where Vinas used to pray, and offers us the story we would expect:
members of the mosque said they had no idea who Vinas was, and that they were horrified by his association with their place of worship.
"He's a traitor first of all. He's fighting against his own people," said Mohammad Akhtar, a chemistry professor at Stony Brook University and a longtime member of the mosque. "We are peaceful people."
Another congregant, Iqbal Syed, a dentist in Patchogue, said, "It's good he got caught."
But the most detailed reporting, thus far, has come from Josh Meyer and Sebastian Rotella, two very good reporters for the Los Angeles Times. The first was a profile of Vinas that hinged on his conversion to Islam. The problem is the story contains an incredible amount of religious scenes, imagery and implications without much explanation of what it meant or how Vinas made the jump from praying in a mosque to waging jihad
This is the most relevant part of that story:
Juan Vinas said his son resisted advice that he go to college. Vinas took technical courses and failed to complete them, his father said. He worked in nearby Smithtown but did not talk about his job, his father said.
About a year after moving to Patchogue, Vinas began spending time away from home. He told his father he attended a mosque and community center about eight miles away in Selden, the Islamic Assn. of Long Island.
The worshipers at the area's oldest mosque, a white wooden building that used to be an Episcopalian church, are predominantly Pakistanis. The mosque president, pharmacist Nayyar Imam, said he remembered Vinas as a "very nice and always smiling, innocent" young Latino convert named Ibrahim. He said Ibrahim frequently attended the mosque for at least a year starting three years ago before disappearing.
"If I hadn't heard the FBI charges, I wouldn't have believed that he's the kind of person who would do this," he said.
Vinas began wearing Islamic robes and a skullcap, his father said. He immersed himself in the Koran and studying Arabic. He brought over three Pakistani friends from the mosque on one occasion. He even encouraged his father to consider converting.
"He said there were some differences between that and the Catholic [religion]. He said he [doesn't] believe in the saints," Juan Vinas said, pointing to a metallic relief of the Last Supper in his living room.
The next day Meyer and Rotella followed up with a story chronicling how Vinas rose so quickly through the Al Qaeda ranks. The only religion in this was a photo of men praying at the Islamic Association of Long Island, which, without any additional context or discussion, is a bit misleading.
Then on Saturday Meyer and Rotella returned with a third story about Vinas' "unlikely odyssey."
Vinas, 26, began cooperating with U.S. officials almost immediately after his arrest, providing what one current federal law enforcement official described as an astounding level of detail about Al Qaeda's top leadership and some of its foot soldiers.
"From the time that he was picked up until the present, we estimate that we have had at least a hundred meetings with him. We have shown him countless photos, we have shown him maps, brought him pictures. We've had sketch artists. We've done everything we can to try and paint as complete of a picture of who he met along the way, where he went, what he did and all of those things," the official said. "I think it's fair to say that he has been a gold mine, not just for the FBI but for the intelligence community in general."
Vinas also told authorities that most, if not all, of those who helped him along the way had no idea of his intentions -- a claim backed up through months of independent, intensive investigation, according to that official and others.
"From what we can tell . . . the contacts he made were his own. He was self-recruited; he was yearning to become a Muslim jihad fighter," the official said. "He made his own path."
Vinas was not the only one.
Recent cases in Europe have shown that aspiring militants follow a long, difficult and haphazard route -- sometimes failing in bids to join Al Qaeda. Although recruitment by ideologues in the West goes on, the more common pattern involves extremists who radicalize on their own and find Al Qaeda, rather than the network finding them.
It's fascinating enough that Vinas was able to climb the ranks of Al Qaeda with little more than the desire to wage jihad. And these stories from the LA Times contain an amazing amount of detail from law enforcement. But none address the underlying question in all of this, particularly when you read "Vinas was not the only one."
What was the switch the turned Vinas from a Muslim covert to a holy warrior?
Was is something that happened here or after he left the United States? Was it something he was taught in a mosque or something he determined for himself after doing his own study? What was it?
So far I haven't seen a Vinas story carry a Pakistan dateline. Hopefully we'll get something down the line as engrossing as The New Yorker profile of Adam Gadahn, aka Azzam the American.
Gadahn did for Al Qaeda what John Walker Lindh did for the Taliban -- gave it an American face. Now Vinas has done for Al Qaeda what Lindh did for the Taliban -- given it an American-borne member inside a U.S. prison. I'd be really interested to read an article about the incarcerated religious practices of Vinas and Lindh. Maybe someday.
The AP reports that Vinas' capture, indictment and guilty plea may mark a new direction for the so-called war on terror -- "one that relies more on FBI crime fighters and the civilian justice system than on CIA interrogators and military detention."
Vinas, though, was an anomaly, and the AP presents no evidence of similar cases. But that's someone else's fight. GetPolitics, anyone?
The "Al Qaeda Yearbook" from Laura Mansfield.