In a case in which the Justice Department appears to have made unusual inroads inside al-Qaida, a federal judge in New York Tuesday unsealed criminal charges accusing two Yemeni nationals of joining the terror group and conspiring to murder U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2003 and 2009.
Bryant Vinas, a young New York man who pleaded guilty in 2009 to felony counts alleging he plotted an attack on the Long Island Railroad for al-Qaida, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and played a key role in implicating the two al-Qaida suspects, according to papers filed by prosecutors in federal court in Brooklyn. The papers also describe another confidential source who assisted the inquiry.
In addition to the conspiracy charge, both Saddiq Al-Abbadi, also known as Sufiyan-al-Yemeni, and Ali Alvi, also known as Issa al-Yemeni, were charged with providing material support to al-Qaida.
Al-Abbadi was accused of engaging in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Both men allegedly traveled to Afghanistan in 2008 with plans to wage jihad on American soldiers.
The charges were announced by Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York who is awaiting Senate confirmation to succeed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
“Al-Abbadi and Alvi may have operated in the mountains of Afghanistan, but now they face justice in a courtroom in Brooklyn,” Lynch said in a statement.
Separately Tuesday, Wesam El-Nanafi was sentenced to 15 years in prison for working with a co-defendant to support Al-Qaida by providing surveillance on the New York Stock Exchange as a possible target for an attack and for sending $67,000 to terrorist operatives overseas. His co-defendant, Sabirhan Hasanoff, pleaded guilty on June 4, 2012 to the same charge, for which he was sentenced in September 2013 to 18 years in prison.
Together, the cases underscore the determination of the Obama administration to prosecute alleged terrorists in U.S. civil courts whenever possible rather than turning them over to a military prison at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
Less clear is whether attacks by al-Qaida operatives against U.S. soldiers are being treated differently than ambushes of American military personnel by members of the Afghan Taliban, or where such lines are being drawn. Alvi joined the Taliban after becoming disaffected with al-Qaida’s leaders, according to the court papers.
Al-Abbadi and Alvi were captured in Saudi Arabia and extradited to the United States.
Vinas is not identified in the court papers, but they describe a cooperating witness whose account meshes with the facts in his own criminal prosecution. Converting to Muslim after he served in the U.S. Army, he traveled to Pakistan in 2007 with the intention of waging holy war against U.S. armed forces, said an FBI affidavit unsealed with the complaint against the Yemenis.
He eventually joined al-Qaida and participated in a rocket attack against U.S. troops. However, he was not admitted to the terror group at first, and traveled from safe house to safe house in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas, at one point learning that he was being refused entry because a man who taught fighters how to build bomb circuitry suspected he was a spy, the affidavit said.
It was at a safe house in early 2008 that he encountered Al-Abbadi and Alvi, both bearing Kalashnikov assault rifles, and they became close associates, it said. Al-Abbadi showed him a jihadist video recorded in Iraq that depicts jihadists, including himself, in Iraq celebrating after a successful attack, the affidavit said.
Al-Abbadi eventually arranged for Vinas to win acceptance into al-Qaida in Pakistan, after which he underwent months of training in a three-stage al-Qaida program that included lessons in grenades, explosives and projectile weapons, it said. Vinas then was ushered to a mosque that was regularly used as a meeting place for senior al-Qaida leaders. There he encountered Al-Abbadi, whom he’d heard had been killed in fighting in Afghanistan.
Vinas also was told that Alvi had become disaffected with al-Qaida’s leaders and elected to instead join the Taliban, the affidavit said.
It is there that the narrative in the FBI affidavit shifts to the confidential source, who decided to wage jihad after seeing offensive pictures depicting the abusive treatment of detainees in Iraq’s Abu Graib prison and satirical cartoons about the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. It says this figure traveled from Saudi Arabia to Iran, hoping to cross its border to Iraq.
At an al-Qaida safe house there, however, the source encountered Al-Abbadi and with others, they watched jihadist videos of attacks on American soldiers, it says. Unable to enter Iraq, the confidential source was instead smuggled across the Iranian border with Pakistan to fight in Afghanistan. The confidential source was later part of an Al-Qaida group that attacked an Afghan National Police station and an adjoining mosque in Gardez, Pakistan, the affidavit said, saying that other evidence corroborated the source’s account.
Little more is said about the confidential source, except that some of his information corroborates that obtained from Vinas.