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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
American Al Qaeda
Aired May 16, 2010 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Don Lemon. See you back here at 10:00 p.m. Eastern. Meantime, a CNN special investigation, "AMERICAN AL QAEDA" starts right now.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): This is the story of a young man who wants to attack America, who joins al Qaeda, meets some of its top commanders, volunteers to become a suicide bomber.
His story begins not in the Middle East, not in Europe. His story begins in middle-class America. A typical all-American childhood, playing baseball, riding bikes.
He is Bryant Neal Vinas, and he is part of a frightening new trend. Homegrown terrorists.
MITCH SILBER, DIRECTOR OF INTELLIGENCE ANALYST, NYPD: Radicalization is definitely on the rise in the United States.
ROBERTSON: American citizens radicalizing, eager to kill their countrymen.
Vinas is the terrorist next door. The AMERICAN AL QAEDA.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: It's clear now the number of Americans who have become radicalized and are willing to kill for al Qaeda or some other terrorist group is on the rise.
Just this month, right here in Times Square, a man by the name of Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate a car bomb. He was born in Pakistan. But this is a story about an American-born citizen. A man by the name of Bryant Neal Vinas. He grew up in suburbia. He was an altar boy. He loved baseball but he became a terrorist and plotted with al Qaeda to explode a bomb in New York.
CNN's senior international correspondent Nic Robertson has spent nearly a year tracking Vinas' path to terror. He's interviewed close friends of his. He's tracked down other extremists in the United States who influenced Vinas.
This "AC 360 Special Investigation" is an intimate and chilling portrait of a homegrown terrorist. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Al Qaeda's target, the busiest commuter railroad in the United States. The Long Island rail road in New York. Hundreds of thousands of passengers every weekday.
Helping plan the bomb attack is an American, a lifelong New Yorker, Bryant Neal Vinas. He gives an al Qaeda leader detailed information about the operation at the Long Island Rail Road System.
Bryant is not providing the information from long distance. He is in the mountains of Pakistan, living and training with al Qaeda. But he is not only helping plan attacks inside the United States, he's also attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
SILBER: You've almost called Vinas the Forrest Gump of the jihad in the sense that he seems to find this way to get himself involved in operations or attacks that seem way beyond a 20-some-odd convert from Long Island should be involved in.
ROBERTSON: An American so radicalized, so dangerous, he is willing to help al Qaeda plot bombings that could kill his own friends and even his own family on Long Island.
PHIL MUDD, FMR. DEPT. HEAD, FBI NATIONAL SECURITY BRANCH: In a conventional war, you have companies, you have division, you have brigades, you have battalions. In this war every single person counts. Every single individual goes over there like him is somebody we can't miss.
ROBERTSON: But the tables could be turning on al Qaeda. Their one-time secret weapon could be spilling their secrets.
Family, friends, and intelligence officials are left wondering, why and how did Bryant turn into a terrorist? Who convinced him to wage jihad against his neighbors?
My search for answers begins about an hour's drive from New York City where Bryant Neal Vinas was born. To the suburbs of Long Island where his family still lives.
(On camera): I've spent the better part of a year here in the United States and in Europe unraveling why and how Bryant Neal Vinas went from Catholic to Muslim, from U.S. Army recruit to jihadists, from Long Island to Lahore.
(Voice-over): This is where he grew up. The son of immigrants from South America. His sister met with me and was happy to talk about her brother, whom she described as a sociable, friendly young boy but she didn't want to go on camera.
Our producer, CNN terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank, has met with him and Bryant's parents several more times.
PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Bryant's mother used to call him "my teddy bear." She says he was an extremely sweet kid. He'd even fix her breakfast in bed when she wasn't feeling well.
Bryant, she says, had a happy childhood.
ROBERTSON: Rita (ph) Desroches remembers those happier times. She lived just down the street, says her family adored Bryant.
RITA DESROCHES, NEIGHBOR: For us I will say Bryant was like family.
ROBERTSON (on camera): Like another son for you in this house?
R. DESROCHES: Yes. Like another son.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Rita's son Carvin knew him best.
(On camera): What are your first memories of Bryant?
CARVIN DESROCHES, CHILDHOOD FRIEND: When we were younger, we used to go in the pool a lot. He was respectful. He wouldn't -- made sure that he wouldn't break any sort of rules in the house.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): As he grew up Bryant developed a passion for baseball.
C. DESROCHES: He took it very seriously, seriously enough to bike ride into the high school which from here would take on a bicycle route half an hour.
ROBERTSON: But those would be Bryant's last care-free days. His world would be shattered by family turmoil, by his father leaving his mother when he was a young teenager.
He was devastated by their separation and eventual divorce. Bryant was filled with anger and started acting out at home.
CRUICKSHANK: There were tears and temper tantrums. Bryant started quarreling with his sister. Being disrespectful towards his mother. He refused to accept his parents' separation.
ROBERTSON: Bryant's rebelling against his parents also led him to experiment with a new church.
CRUICKSHANK: Bryant started attending an evangelical protestant church according to his mother. She says that he seemed to be looking for something, seeking direction in his life.
ROBERTSON: But attending the new church did nothing to quail his growing anger. His mother says Bryant became too much for her to handle. So she went to court and gave up custody of him.
At one point, the Desroches family found Bryant sleeping in his car.
R. DESROCHES: It was one of those moments that -- no place to go and we offer him the house and he was more welcome to come and he did stay here for about a month or so. ROBERTSON: She says they lost touch with Bryant when he moved into this house to live with his father and his father's soon-to-be wife. But it was an easier arrangement. His father says Bryant couldn't come to terms with his plan to remarry.
Unhappy living with his father, no longer speaking to his mother, Bryant was losing the stability of family, losing the sense of belonging, turning to new friends for emotional support, searching for a new identity.
(On camera): It was here that Bryant would make a new friendship that would lead all the way to the al Qaeda camps in Pakistan. It was to be a long journey. And at the time neither he nor his new buddy had any idea what the relationship would lead to.
ALEX ACEVEDO, CLOSE FRIEND: I just never would have thought he would have done something like this.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): It would begin with Bryant's seemingly insatiable curiosity, and although his new friend wouldn't be part of it would find quick steps lead Bryant to turn his back on Christianity and eventually turn against his own country.
ROBERTSON: Bryant Neal Vinas was a restless teenager. He was angry with his parents for separating. Uncomfortable living with his father, a new stepmother.
(On camera): Did he ever talk much about his dad, about how that relationship was?
ACEVEDO: It was sour. So the relationship between him and his family were just -- they just crumbled. They shattered in pieces. And he started a new life with his friends.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Alex Acevedo would become Bryant's closest friend. He sits down with me for his first-ever interview about his best buddy.
(On camera): So tell me how did you first meet Bryant? Where did you meet him?
ACEVEDO: Well, I met him in high school. Longwood High School. He was lonely, you could tell. So as times went on I eventually tapped him on his shoulders.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): It was the beginning of a friendship that would last well beyond high school and eventually put Bryant on his path to Islam.
Alex liked partying but he also liked Bryant's clean-cut serious lifestyle.
ACEVEDO: Never had a beer with him. Nothing. He was just a straight-edge. He was passionate about school. He did his homework on time. He wanted to finish school and go to college.
ROBERTSON (on camera): He sounds like a regular middle-class kid.
ACEVEDO: Oh yes, he is. Yes, he's just dedicated. He's very dedicated, and he's focused. Very focused. To me he's very goal oriented.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Alex takes me to one of their favorite (INAUDIBLE), this nearby harbor, where they would eat ice cream, kick back, watch the boats.
(On camera): What was special about this place to him?
ACEVEDO: Just the water, feeling free, knowing that the boats come in and leave. Knowing that he can jump in a boat and just decide to go anywhere he decided to go.
ROBERTSON: It got a little bit of the travel bug in him.
ACEVEDO: Yes, he wanted to travel. He always wanted to get away. Always.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): On the well-kept streets of Patchogue, Long Island where Bryant is living with his father, he is surrounded by the symbols of patriotism.
It's 2001, after the al Qaeda attack on September 11th, one of Bryant's friends joins the Marines. One joins the Army, and another too, the Coast Guard.
(On camera): What was he talking to you about what he wanted to do with his life?
ACEVEDO: He just said he wanted to go to the military, you know, and then just come out and just live happy.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): In March 2002 Bryant himself makes the commitment to his nation. And enlists in the U.S. Army.
His military records, obtained by CNN, show he signs up for the infantry and goes to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. But after three weeks, he's discharged. His records don't elaborate due to privacy laws.
Bryant's family says he was discharged due to his asthma. We also ask his friends.
(On camera): What did he tell you about his experiences in the army?
ACEVEDO: He said it was -- it was good at one point but boot camp sucked. He said it was too difficult on him.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): By now, Bryant is in his early 20s, drifting. He doesn't have much money and is eating breakfast cereal for lunch and dinner, trying to save money to go to Cuba. And he does go, twice.
CRUICKSHANK: In Long Island, Bryant's getting into boxing. Cuba's the perfect place to pursue this. Over there, according to friends, he trains with a boxing instructor and for a while dates the trainer's daughter. A relationship that ended when Bryant can't get back into Cuba a third time.
ACEVEDO: Yes, that hurt him. That hurt him a lot.
ROBERTSON: It's illegal for Bryant to go to Cuba but he gets away with it both times. By re-entering the U.S. without revealing where he's been, claiming he lost his passport.
For Mitch Silber at the NYPD who would later become intricately involved in Bryant's case, Cuba is a glimpse of a new side of Bryant.
SILBER: There's almost his challenge for him, sort of extreme travel, and that had some sort of appeal to him being almost, you know, a counterculture-type of approach. So yes, sure, he went to Cuba, even though he knew that was against the rules.
ROBERTSON: Back home on Long Island, Bryant's friends say he seems to be searching for a sense of belonging. A family.
He finds that connection in Alex Acevedo's brother, Victor, an inspiring Boxer and a Muslim convert. Bryant has sparred with him. Now he wants the camaraderie Victor shares with his Muslim buddies.
ACEVEDO: He asks, what is the Koran? And my brother, he explained to him what it was. And he handed him the Koran.
ROBERTSON (on camera): And how long did it take him to read it?
ACEVEDO: Not long because he took every minute, every second reading that book. He didn't sleep. He just sat there, read that whole book.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Bryant has been searching for his sense of purpose and identity. First, it was evangelical Christianity, then the Army. Now it's an entirely new religion.
Within weeks of reading the Koran Victor gave him, Bryant travels from Long Island to New York City, to this mosque in Queens. He's decided to become a Muslim.
(On camera): His conversion was fast. The mosque he had come to was ran by Tablighi Jamaat. Their members are like Jehovah's Witnesses. Spreading the word, looking for converts. They avoid politics.
(Voice-over): And although Tablighi Jamaat is not considered a radical movement counterterrorism officials point out that its members' zealousness can make some of them vulnerable to radical recruiters.
CRUICKSHANK: Several former members of the Tablighi Jamaat have become implicated in terrorism. For example, John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban. Another the ringleader of the London 2005 bombing attacks.
ROBERTSON: Unwittingly, Bryant Neal Vinas has taken another step on his path to al Qaeda. A journey to jihad that soon would be inspired --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The hell with America!
ROBERTSON: -- by new radical friends.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To hell with Barack Obama.
ROBERTSON: Bryant Neal Vinas, age 20, has a new religion, a new Muslim name -- Ibrahim -- and according to his best friend, new priorities.
ACEVEDO: You can see in his face and his eyes that he was more focused, more happy. You know there was no more playing softball, doing this and that. It was more praying.
ROBERTSON: Vinas comes to pray here at the moderate Selden mosque on Long Island where Tahir Qureshi is a prominent member.
TAHIR QURESHI, CHAIRMAN, SELDEN MOSQUE: They told me that he's (INAUDIBLE) his name is going to be Ibrahim and I said very good. Welcome to the mosque and he seemed like a very quite nice guy.
ROBERTSON: He's making new friends, becoming devout but not yet radical. This member of the mosque knew him well. He's afraid to show his face to the camera.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, he's serious but he's quiet you know, but I don't see no violence in him, nothing you know, just a quiet kid.
ROBERTSON (on camera): This mosque became Bryant's focus, an obsession even. He would spend a lot of his spare time here. He got to know the caretaker well. Would ask him questions. They would chat.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were, like, together every single day, you know, because I think Ibrahim, he didn't have good relationship with his family so he was with his caretaker, you know, all day long. They were like really good friends. ROBERTSON: The caretaker was reluctant to speak to us on camera but told us their close relationship began to sour when Bryant began spending more and more time with this man.
AHMAD ZARINNI, ISLAMIC THINKERS SOCIETY: These people are liars.
ROBERTSON: Ahmad Zarinni, a young man turned down by members of the mosque when he offered to run classes for the children.
QURESHI: I have that feeling that he might not follow our guideline over books.
ROBERTSON (on camera): Ahmad Zarinni was no moderate Muslim. Our investigations have shown that he was a leading figure in a radical Islamist group. The Islamic Thinkers Society. Counterterrorism officials say they've come to the same conclusion.
ZARINNI: Disgust and disappointment.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Zarinni is front and center at demonstrations held by the Islamic Thinkers Society in New York City. It has a radical anti-American message.
ZARINNI: You see this flag here?
ROBERTSON: One that doesn't fit at the Selden Mosque. But the group is entirely legal.
SILBER: As much as Islamic Thinkers Society might put out an extremist message it seems that they go right up to the line with the First Amendment.
YOUSEF AL-KHATTAB, ISLAMIC THINKERS SOCIETY: I have freedom of expression. Yes, in this country. This country.
I got the message out there of what I have to do so there's really nothing that they can do to me. I happen to United States the United States law, constitution and these things and I exercise my rights.
ROBERTSON: Counterterrorism officials say that it is through the Islamic Thinkers Society that Bryant begins to develop his ideas about jihad and wanting to fight U.S. troops.
SILBER: In a sense they're almost bug lights for aspiring jihadists. They've got an anti-western, anti-democratic, anti-U.S., pro-al Qaeda message.
ZARINNI: The hell with America.
ROBERTSON: And the leading light of the group, according to counterterrorism officials was this man. Yousef al-Khattab.
AL-KHATTAB: I love Osama bin Laden. I love him -- whoa, like I can't begin to tell you.
ROBERTSON: He recently told CNN's Drew Griffin that he met Bryant.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: How closely did you know Bryant Neal Vinas?
AL-KHATTAB: I met him one time.
GRIFFIN: One time?
AL-KHATTAB: That's it. I just knew that he was a good Muslim brother and that was it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you are an enemy of Islam.
AL-KHATTAB: You're an enemy of Islam.
ROBERTSON: But law enforcement officials tell us that Khattab met Bryant on several occasions. Khattab has since left the United States.
So we tried to locate Ahmad Zarinni, the Islamic Thinkers Society member, who, we've been told, first introduced Bryant to the radical group. Khattab has told us that Ahmad Zarinni was considered an extremist even within the Islamic Thinkers Society.
I come here to Zarinni's parent's house near the Selden mosque in Long Island. If Ahmed is in there, then behind those windows could be the secret to Bryant's radicalization.
I don't see Ahmed, but I do meet his father.
(On camera): Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have a very good day.
ROBERTSON: You too. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good luck.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Mr. Zarinni tells me Ahmed is not home. He's out of the country. But we get a tip that Ahmed is not abroad. So we wait and within a few hours, a car goes by.
ROBERTSON (on camera): That's him. That's him. That's Ahmed.
(Voice-over): In it, Ahmed and his father. Later that day, I return to the house.
(On camera): Well, Ahmad Zarinni's father just admitted to me that he lied to me earlier in the day when he told me that Ahmed wasn't around. He admits now that his son was in fact inside the house.
(Voice-over): I am told Ahmed refuses to meet me or answer any of my questions. But while I'm searching for him, I stumble across someone who will talk. He is Ahmer Qayyum, one-time devotee at the Islamic Thinkers Society. I first reach him by phone. (On camera): I'm from CNN, yes.
(Voice-over): His number was given to me who believes that Qayyum is important to my investigation.
(On camera): I understand that you may know something about Bryant Neal Vinas?
AHMER QAYYUM, ISLAMIC THINKERS SOCIETY: Are you on his side or are you against him just because he accepted Islam?
ROBERTSON (voice-over): He admits he knows Bryant and Ahmad Zarinni but he's reluctant to go on camera. He's scared we may be FBI agents.
QAYYUM: But you can be FBI agent as well, right? Trying to pose as a -- you know, as an investigative reporter.
ROBERTSON: The FBI, we're later told, is trying to track Qayyum down for questioning but CNN gets there first. He eventually agrees to an on-camera interview in Pakistan where he is living.
QAYYUM: I don't think that American evil empire's going to last too long now.
ROBERTSON: Qayyum was an acting student in New York.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And least Muslims to victory.
ROBERTSON: Before he drifted into radical circles with the Islamic Thinkers Society.
QAYYUM: I mean I like what they did, you know, and I joined them, you know, on a lot of occasions. Spreading the word. You know trying to get the truth out.
ROBERTSON: And Qayyum is about to play a very significant role in setting Bryant Neal Vinas on his path to al Qaeda.
Zarinni, Khattab, Qayyum, all belong to the Islamic Thinkers Society. Bryant begins to emulate his new friends, dress like them, flowing Arabic-style robes. But his friends at moderate Selden mosque worry, he is falling under the influence of these radical friends, and that they are preying on his vulnerability.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he is depressed, you know, because the relationship with his family. Plus he get laid off, no job, you know, no money. You know, that would lead you to be depressed.
ROBERTSON (on camera): And then they took advantage of that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, of course. Yes, they took advantage of that, you know.
ROBERTSON: And set him off on the wrong path.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, which is easy do, you know, with someone depressed.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): But it is Bryant's next step that really begins to shock his old friends at the Selden mosque. He tells them that he wants to join Muslims fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So I told him do not go.
ROBERTSON: But Bryant is determined to wage jihad on America.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Don Lemon here at the CNN world headquarters in Atlanta. I want to take a look at your top stories this hour.
BP is pumping oil from that gushing leak to a ship on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. It is not clear how much oil is being removed from the water. But a company vice president calls it a positive step forward. The next step is injecting a fluid called kill mud which is used to reduce the flow of pressure -- and pressure of the leak. If it works, BP hopes to entomb the well in cement.
London's Heathrow Airport will be closed tonight thanks to another cloud of ash from a volcano in Iceland. The plume grounded planes in other parts of Britain and Ireland today disrupted travel for an estimated 10 million passengers in April. Scientists warn the eruptions could last another year.
I'm Don Lemon. "AMERICAN AL QAEDA" continues next on CNN.
ROBERTSON: Now in his early 20s, Bryant Neal Vinas is spending time with his radical new friends, but he is also spending time alone on the Internet. Hour after hour, withdrawing into himself, viewing videos that enrage him.
By now Alex is seeing his old friend change more than ever.
(On camera): Who's putting the extremist's ideas in his head?
ACEVEDO: It's clips there, clips there. Just a bunch of different Web sites he would go on the computer.
SILBER: There's evidence to believe that he was on there looking at Web sites, getting encouragement on Web sites that jihad was permissible.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): And as he reads, the one-time army recruit begins to believe that the U.S. was behind the 9/11 attacks, that America is at war with Islam.
ACEVEDO: Yes. Yes, there's a war against Islam.
ROBERTSON (on camera): This is what Bryant believed?
ACEVEDO: This is what Bryant believed. You know, he was always pissed off, always mad.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): He even thinks that a federal agency -- FEMA -- is believing concentration camps where the government is going to put Muslims.
CRUICKSHANK: By this time Bryant Neal Vinas wants to leave the United States.
ROBERTSON: CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank has spoken intensively with friends and investigators about this time in Bryant's life.
CRUICKSHANK: He is so immerse in extremist ideology that he's no longer just satisfied with espousing the extremist rhetoric of Yousef al-Khattab and the Islamic Thinkers Society. He craves action.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, what's happening in Palestine, in Saudi Arabia, and everywhere?
SILBER: The pattern that we've seen is that a lot of these individuals who were attracted to the bug light at a certain point realize that these groups are just talkers. They're not going to do more than demonstrate. They're not going to do more than put out extreme statements and those who were serious about the jihad leave these groups.
ROBERTSON: And Bryant has already made it clear that he wants to wage jihad, making him feel increasingly out of step with the moderate Selden mosque.
He needs somewhere else to pray. He comes up this long dirt road to a small nondescript house. A new mosque.
The man who was then deputy head of the FBI's National Security branch tells me that he sees this pattern all too often.
MUDD: People peeling off in smaller groups because either they don't feel comfortable in one environment or people actively in that environment say you're not welcome here. That's a pretty common phenomenon.
ROBERTSON (on camera): But they're more at risk once they're peeled off?
MUDD: Yes. I think they're clearly more at risk because you're going to get a close circle of individuals where other ideas can't penetrate.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we stand up with the truth.
CRUICKSHANK: Some in Bryant's (INAUDIBLE) tell me that Bryant came to believe the United States was at war with Islam. He became so convinced of this that he took up bin Laden's command to stop paying United States taxes. He also told them he wanted to go and fight jihad.
But his friends never thought he would actual he go and do it.
ACEVEDO: I didn't think that he was going to go kill somebody.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Bryant suggests to Alex they come here to this Long Island gun range just a few weeks before he would leave.
Alex still doesn't realize how serious his friend is about going to wage jihad.
(On camera): So what were you -- what were you shooting here?
ACEVEDO: We was just clay shooting and shooting at targets?
ROBERTSON: Yes? The targets up here?
ACEVEDO: Oh, we probably shot a good 200 rounds.
ROBERTSON: Did he like it on the range? Did he like being here and hear these guns going off?
ACEVEDO: Yes. He liked it very much. He felt free.
ROBERTSON: But Bryant has a problem. How to get to Pakistan, how to link up with jihadists.
SILBER: Bryant Neal Vinas stands out as an individual who had no real connections to Pakistan. So someone obviously had to vouch for Bryant Neal Vinas in order for him to make those connections in Pakistan.
ROBERTSON: Bryant finds out that someone in his new circle of radical friends -- Ahmer Qayyum -- does have contacts in Pakistan. He decides to start hiding his true intentions from his friends, telling them he wants to go to Pakistan to attend a religious score, a madrassa.
SILBER: It's a perfect cover for someone who doesn't want to reveal their true intentions until the end.
ROBERTSON: Finally, it is time for good-byes. Alex says he remains haunted by Bryant's parting words.
ACEVEDO: He told me, he was like I'll see you in your dreams. I say, in my dreams? What are you talking about? He said, I'll call you in your dreams. I was dumbfounded. And he just gave me a book and the book was "Jihad."
ROBERTSON: Within weeks, Bryant would be in Afghanistan, on a mission targeting U.S. troops.
ROBERTSON: On September 10th, 2007, Bryant Neal Vinas flew from here in New York to Lahore, Pakistan. It had been five years since he'd been a U.S. Army recruit. A little less since he converted from Catholic to Muslim.
Now he was on his way to Afghanistan to attack the U.S. troops.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Bryant's never been to the region before. But one of his radical friends in New York -- Ahmer Qayyum, the acting student -- is from Pakistan. They make arrangements to fly there around the same time.
QAYYUM: My flight, you know, got delayed for like a few days and he arrived in Lahore right before me.
ROBERTSON: Qayyum claims Bryant's tells him only that he has come to Pakistan to attend a religious school -- a madrassa -- to become a better Muslim.
QAYYUM: I think Peshawar or (INAUDIBLE), you know, new frontier, you know, he wanted to go to a madrassa there.
ROBERTSON (on camera): U.S. security officials tell us they believe not only did Qayyum know about Bryant's plans to attack U.S. troops but also helps him hook up with contacts here in Pakistan who can introduce him to militants on the border with Afghanistan. The land of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Qayyum denies this.
(Voice-over): Bryant knows without his help he would be putting himself in extreme danger.
MUDD: The people we see out in that part of the world are very suspicious of people who walk up to a camp. And they want to see bona fides. They wanted to see somebody who introduces that person, somebody who knows that person already. A facilitator from that person's home country, for example, who might say, trust this guy.
ROBERTSON: In this interrogation document CNN has obtained from European sources, Bryant describes what happens next.
SILBER: Within weeks it seems like he's involved with military action, guerrilla action out there.
ROBERTSON: He joins the militants on a mission to attack U.S. bases in Afghanistan.
In his interrogation, Bryant describes hauling weapons to a mountain top. Then aborting the mission as U.S. aircraft closed in. SILBER: His trajectory -- you know, he's shown his ability to sort of surprise us in terms of his -- it was really his desire and eagerness to get into the fight overseas.
ROBERTSON: According to what Bryant later tells investigators, he is soon asked to become a suicide bomber. And he accepts.
SILBER: He may have viewed it as potentially some type of test to vet him as to whether he was really serious about this.
MUDD: You're going to go through multiple paths, multiple doors, if you will, before someone says OK, we think -- we kind of sort of maybe trust this person.
ROBERTSON (on camera): But when Taliban militants here in Pakistan don't provide Bryant with the training in action he wants, his impatience gets the better of him, and he begins a series of unsuccessful attempts to join Osama bin Laden's followers.
(Voice-over): One time he disguises himself as a woman dresses in a burqa to hide his Hispanic American identity, and sets off alone to find an al Qaeda camp. He fails, but he won't give up and nearly loses his life because of his persistence.
CRUICKSHANK: Some fighters in the tribal areas still don't trust Vinas. They suspect he could be a spy. On one occasion militants he runs into decide to kill him. And they almost do. But he talks them out of it.
ROBERTSON: After a few more months, finally he gets what he wants. Al Qaeda relents, letting him into their camp in the hard scrabbled hills of Pakistan's (INAUDIBLE) border region.
Bryant Neal Vinas becomes a fully-fledge member of al Qaeda. By now he is already shown the al Qaeda recruiters one of his most valuable assets -- perseverance.
Veteran's CIA psychologist Marc Sageman advised the NYPD.
MARC SAGEMAN, FORMER SCHOLAR IN RESIDENCE, NYPD: That trait of persistence would make him potentially very dangerous if he had decided to do some kind of terrorist plot in the west because he would not have given up.
ROBERTSON: Bryant is given a place to live with jihadists from Europe. Conditions in the small house are Spartan (ph). Some of the Europeans he meets are being trained for international operations.
MUDD: You have a subset of people whom might undergo different training in very small facilities on things like how to build an explosive device, how to evade foreign security services, how to communicate in a secret manner.
ROBERTSON: Soon, al Qaeda instructors are training Bryant on AK- 47s, rockets, heavy machine guns, how to build bombs, how to kill U.S. troops across the border in Afghanistan. SILBER: So he was really going through a fixed regiment, a training regiment that al Qaeda has been using.
ROBERTSON: Bryant was becoming a fully trained terrorist, becoming a danger to his own nation.
MUDD: Once they go out there and gain that kind of operational training, whether it's communication's security, or how to build a device, their potential for lethality is much greater.
ROBERTSON: It is now over a year since Bryant first arrived in Pakistan. He is again on the verge of what he's been dreaming about -- killing U.S. troops.
When he's considered qualified to participate in a missile attack, he moves close to the border with Afghanistan. Other al Qaeda fighters join him.
They try two rocket attacks from inside Pakistan, on U.S. troops across the border, but it doesn't go well. He details what happened.
The first attack was not launched because of radio communication problems. And the second rocket attack did not reach the base.
It is where he wants to be, but al Qaeda has other plans for him.
SILBER: His main value to al Qaeda is the same value that they've been looking for, really going back to 9/11. In the sense, who can operate for al Qaeda in the west?
ROBERTSON: Bryant, the all-American boy, is being groomed for something special. He meets this man. One of al Qaeda's founders. Believed to be his current military chief.
SILBER: Bryant Neal Vinas. Here's an individual, not only has he spent a lot of time in the west but he's got a U.S. passport and also from just physical appearance, he certainly doesn't look like he's an Arab or a South Asian, so if you're an al Qaeda thinking that -- you know you're looking to potentially get around customs or some type of security regiment in the west, here's an individual who has a lot of appeal to you, who's just sort of shown up on your doorstep.
ROBERTSON: Could he become al Qaeda's secret weapon in a deadly plot to strike its primary target, inside the USA?
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Bryant is now battle-ready. Would al Qaeda ask him to attack back at home inside the United States? We may never know.
(On camera): But somewhere on this timeline -- and they won't tell us exactly when -- U.S. intelligence agencies began tracking Bryant. But what we do know is that in the fall of 2008, he left the safety of the al Qaeda camps and terrorists here in Pakistan and traveled to Peshawar.
He was detained and swiftly transported to the United States and then secretly taken into a Brooklyn courthouse.
(Voice-over): He pleads guilty to three charges -- providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, receiving military-type training from a foreign terrorist organization, and conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals.
SILBER: This potential information that he had given to al Qaeda, that sort concept had already been used, not only in Mumbai (ph) but frankly also in Madrid.
ROBERTSON: Bryant's story isn't over yet. As much as he was a potential benefit to al Qaeda, now he is a gold mine to the U.S.
So far he's given over a hundred interviews to the FBI. Counterterrorism officials say this information has been exceptionally helpful, priceless in targeting al Qaeda and the Taliban. As good, officials say, as having a U.S. spy penetrate al Qaeda.
AL-KHATTAB: I don't respect your opinion --
ROBERTSON: Bryant's former radical hero feels betrayed.
AL-KHATTAB: For informing on the people that are fighting in Afghanistan I call him a coward. Absolutely.
MUDD: It's heartening to get somebody like this and to learn and to keep evolving and al Qaeda's evolving against us at the same time.
ROBERTSON: It is intelligence, counterterrorism officials say, that strikes at the heart of al Qaeda, locations of operatives, how al Qaeda runs its courier networks. Information still useful months after Bryant's arrest.
(On camera): Bryant Neal Vinas was mixing with European jihadists and that's why I'm on this train heading to Brussels to meet the head of Belgium intelligence. He knows who Bryant was meeting and what they were plotting.
ALAIN WINANTS, BELGIAN STATE SECURITY CHIEF: It's been passed over by FBI --
ROBERTSON (voice-over): He admits what U.S. intelligence officials will only say off camera. Bryant is helping investigators. Bryant's testimony was important in a recent terror trial in Belgium that resulted in guilty verdicts.
WINANTS: Any information in this field is of importance and has to be checked, cross-checked, double checked.
ROBERTSON (on camera): And then Bryant Neal Vinas' cases, he had something of value.
WINANTS: Some his declarations had an added value for several intelligence and law enforcement services.
ROBERTSON: With his newfound European jihadi friends, Bryant talked about terror plots. One time discussing a plan to attack Belgium's metro, the Underground Rail Commuter Network here in Brussels.
But it wasn't the only rail network that Bryant discussed targeting. He told investigators he talked with al Qaeda about attacking the Long Island Rail Road. The terminals here in Penn Station and New York.
They reacted swiftly, within several weeks of his arrest, stepping up security here in time for Thanksgiving 2008.
SILBER: I don't doubt for a moment that since 9/11 al Qaeda's desire and intention to attack New York City hasn't dropped one iota, that they still -- it's really the number one target for them in the United States.
So having a New Yorker show up on their doorstep who could tell them about the Long Island Rail Road and other specifics about New York City, must have been for them potentially a great opportunity that they wanted to exploit.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): Inside a U.S. prison, Bryant is getting lonely. He's begun contacting some of his old friends, sending this letter to Alex.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "I know by now you've heard about me through the news. You ever see the movie "Groundhogs Day?" Well, that's what I feel like every day. Write back when you can."
ROBERTSON: Alex says he will not write back but if he did --
ACEVEDO: I will say, thanks for the pressure. Thanks for the pressure. Thanks for not being open with me. Thanks for not being a friend.
ROBERTSON (on camera): You're angry with him.
ACEVEDO: Yes, I'm pissed off. I'm pissed off at him. I don't want to bother with him, nothing. Nothing.
ROBERTSON (voice-over): But to the radical, who befriended him in New York City and who counterterrorism officials believe hooked him up with Pakistani militants, Bryant is a hero.
QAYYUM: If I ever meet him I'm going to hug him, I'm going to love him, for what he did.
ROBERTSON: Bryant's mother and sister still live here in his childhood home. CRUICKSHANK: They won't go on camera. We've met with them many times to talk about Bryant and they're still shocked, upset and angry. They say Bryant was a person who was beautiful inside, but now they feel they hardly know him anymore. They say that if this happened to them, it will happen to another American family.
ROBERTSON (on camera): Bryant Neal Vinas was intelligent and inquisitive but he was vulnerable and ultimately gullible and that was his downfall. He bought into hollow conspiracy theories, was easily radicalized.
By the time he was captured he'd already tried to kill his own countrymen. His story challenges the jihadi stereotype, but perhaps more importantly, it reveals that homegrown radicalization is taking root that there will be another AMERICAN AL QAEDA.
COOPER: Sources tell us that since coming back to the United States, Bryant Neal Vinas has undergone yet another transformation. Moving away from his radical views. He's still helping authorities.
Even though he pleaded guilty more than a year ago, he's yet to be sentenced. The maximum penalty he faces is life in prison.
I'm Anderson Cooper. Thanks for watching this "360 Special Investigation."