NEW YORK – An American-born terrorist-in-training learned how to shoot rockets and assault rifles and construct a suicide bomber's vest at Al Qaeda camps in Pakistan, according to documents obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.
Bryant Neal Vinas took courses in plastic explosives and bomb theory, according to a statement he gave to investigators as part of a terrorism case in Belgium. The statement, provided to the AP on Thursday, was to be released after a hearing Friday, officials said.
Since the 26-year-old New York man's arrest in Pakistan in November 2008, Vinas has become one of the most valuable informants in the war on terrorism, giving investigators a fascinating and rare look into Al Qaeda's day-to-day operations in a lawless region bordering Afghanistan.
He provided insights on many key members of Al Qaeda and how the organization recruited and indoctrinated people. Vinas also revealed the group gave lessons on assassination, poison, kidnapping, forgery and advanced bomb making, according to the statement.
Vinas told counterterrorism investigators about meetings with top Al Qaeda members while staying at a network of hideouts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where he trained from about March 2008 to August 2008.
Pakistani authorities nabbed the 26-year-old New Yorker after he returned to city of Peshawar near the border of Afghanistan to find a wife, according to his statement.
While he has been in custody in New York, the U.S. has made a series of successful unmanned Predator drone strikes on suspected Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda member Abdullah Azzam al-Saudi, who was reportedly a recruiter for the terrorist organization.
Vinas told authorities that he knew of an Abdullah Azzam, a law enforcement official told the AP, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.
Vinas' attorney Len Kamdang declined comment Thursday.
Vinas, who grew up in the New York City suburbs on Long Island, was charged in court papers unsealed Wednesday with giving Al Qaeda "expert advice and assistance" about New York's transit system and with a rocket attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan last year.
He pleaded guilty Jan. 28 to conspiring to murder U.S. nationals, supporting and receiving training from a foreign terrorist organization in a sealed courtroom in Brooklyn, according to a transcript of the hearing unsealed Thursday.
Vinas admitted to traveling to Pakistan in 2007 "with the intention of meeting and joining a jihadist group to fight American soldiers in Afghanistan," the transcript read.
He said he took part in two "missions" in September 2008 to attack a U.S. military base near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The first attack failed, Vinas said. A few days later, "I took part in firing rockets at an American military base. Although we intended to hit the military base and kill American soldiers, I was informed that the rockets missed and the attack failed."
After crossing back into Pakistan, Vinas accepted an invitation to become a suicide bomber. He eventually landed in the mountainous region of Waziristan where he came into contact with members of Al Qaeda. Around March 2008, Vinas said he was accepted into Al Qaeda and began intensive training.
Vinas said he told top Al Qaeda officials about the New York commuter rail he traveled on frequently "to help plan a bottom attack of the Long Island Rail Road system." Law enforcement officials familiar with the case also said Vinas told investigators he heard discussions about targeting the Belgium metro system.
Vinas was interviewed this year in New York by Belgian prosecutors pursuing an anti-terror case against Malika El Aroud, Belgian prosecutors said.
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 to evaluate whether El Aroud and five others should remain in custody. The six are charged with belonging to a terrorist organization, which Belgian officials say is part of an Al Qaeda group plotting new attacks either in Europe or elsewhere.