NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York City-born former al Qaeda member who plotted to attack a commuter railroad will be released in three months after spending 8-1/2 years in custody because of the extensive intelligence he provided U.S. investigators after his arrest, prosecutors said.
Bryant Neal Vinas, 34, pleaded guilty in 2009 after his capture by Pakistani authorities in 2008. At a hearing in Brooklyn on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis sentenced him to time served plus three months, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn.
Vinas, a U.S. Army veteran, travelled to Pakistan in 2007 and eventually joined the militant group al Qaeda, which provided him weapons and explosives training, authorities said.
In 2008, he participated in a rocket attack against a U.S. base across the Afghanistan border. He also worked with al Qaeda leaders to identify potential attacks inside the United States and suggested targeting the Long Island Rail Road, a major commuter rail that connects New York City to Long Island suburbs, according to U.S. prosecutors.
Within days of his arrest, however, Vinas began cooperating with U.S. investigators, giving operational details and intelligence on al Qaeda's activities and members. In court papers, prosecutors said he contributed to the opening or closing of more than 30 law enforcement investigations.
"To say that the defendant provided substantial assistance to the government in an understatement," U.S. prosecutors wrote in court filings. "He may have been the single most valuable cooperating witness" with respect to al Qaeda's activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2007 and 2008.
The government has kept many details of Vinas' cooperation classified, in part because prosecutors said the information he has provided is contributing to ongoing investigations.
In 2012, Vinas testified at the trial of Adis Medunjanin, who was convicted of trying to coordinate suicide bombings of the New York City subway system. His information also led to charges against another al Qaeda member, though that case has remained sealed.
A lawyer for Vinas, Michael Bachrach, said Vinas was "arguably the most important cooperator in the history of our country against al Qaeda" ahead of Thursday's sentencing.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Leslie Adler)