An American-born al-Qaida recruit trained to become a suicide bomber before he was captured in Pakistan last year, law enforcement officials said on Thursday.
Bryant Neal Vinas learned how to use a suicide vest, according to the law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly. One of the officials also said Vinas told investigators he heard discussions about targeting the Belgium metro system. Pakistani authorities nabbed the 26-year-old New Yorker last year in the city of Peshawar near the border of Afghanistan. Law enforcement officials have refused to say exactly when, but a person familiar with the case said Vinas was picked up in November. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Since his arrest, Vinas has become one of the most valuable informants in the war on terror, giving investigators a rare look at al-Qaida's day-to-day operations in a lawless region bordering Pakistan.
While he has been in custody, the United States has made a series of successful unmanned US Predator drone strikes on suspected al-Qaida locations in the difficult-to-penetrate border region, raising questions about whether Vinas provided the information that led to any of the deadly attacks.
One of those strikes took place in northwest Pakistan on Nov 19, about the time of Vinas' capture. The strike killed al-Qaida member Abdullah Azzam al-Saudi, who was reportedly a recruiter for the terrorist organization. Vinas told authorities that he knew of an Abdullah Azzam, according to one of the law enforcement officials. However, it wasn't initially clear whether he was referring to the same man who died in the Predator strike.
Vinas, who grew up in the New York City suburbs of Long Island, was charged in New York court papers unsealed Wednesday with giving al-Qaida "expert advice and assistance" about New York's transit system and with a rocket attack on US forces in Afghanistan last year.
The identity of Vinas, nicknamed "Ibrahim" or "Bashir al-Ameriki," has been kept secret since his indictment late last year. Court papers show he pleaded guilty in January in a sealed courtroom in Brooklyn and remains in US custody in New York. Authorities issued an alert around the US holiday of Thanksgiving last fall saying the FBI had received a "plausible but unsubstantiated" report that al-Qaida terrorists may have discussed attacking the subway system around the holidays. The origin of that report was Vinas, according to law enforcement officials. Vinas was also interviewed this year in New York by prosecutors in Belgium pursuing an anti-terror case involving Malika El Aroud, said an official at the Belgian Federal Prosecutor's Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case. El Aroud is the widow of a man involved in killing anti-Taliban warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud two days before the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Vinas' testimony was being submitted to a closed court hearing on Friday in Belgium. The hearing is to evaluate whether El Aroud and five others should remain in custody.
The six have been in custody since their arrest in December and are charged with belonging to a terrorist organization, which Belgian officials say is part of an al-Qaida group plotting new attacks either in Europe or elsewhere.
A defense attorney in the Belgian case, Christophe Marchand, denied his client was a terrorist or knew Vinas.
"He never talked about meeting an American - never," the lawyer said.
Vinas has told counterterrorism investigators about meetings with top al-Qaida members while staying at a network of hideouts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where he trained from about March 2008 to August 2008.
Vinas named several of the terror group's officials and described their activities, including rocket and mortar strikes against US forces in the area. Vinas also revealed discussions among terrorists about potential civilian targets in Europe and described training in weapons and explosives.
Vinas received "military-style training" from al-Qaida, according to court papers.
Vinas' attorney, Len Kamdang, wouldn't comment, other than requesting "the public withhold judgment in this case until all of the facts become available."