By CNN Terrorism Analyst Paul Cruickshank
New details emerged in federal court in Brooklyn on Monday of a plan al Qaeda hatched in the summer of 2008 to bomb the Long Island Railroad.
Bryant Neal Vinas, a confessed American al Qaeda operative who joined the terrorist network in Pakistan's tribal areas in March 2008, provided details of a plan for a suicide bomber to detonate explosives aboard a Long Island Railroad train as it entered a tunnel on the commuter line to create maximum devastation.
Vinas was testifying in the trial of Adis Medunjanin, a U.S. citizen of Bosnian descent, who is charged with involvement in an al Qaeda plot to bomb New York's subways in September 2009. U.S. authorities allege the 2009 plot was orchestrated by Saleh al Somali and other senior al Qaeda operatives. Vinas and Medunjanin never met.
Vinas revealed in court that he suggested the idea of attacking the railroad to al Qaeda operatives while he was in one of the group's encampments in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Vinas said his idea was for an al Qaeda operative to leave a suitcase bomb with a timer on a train and then exit at a station before the device exploded.
Vinas also suggested an attack on a Wal-Mart store in which an al Qaeda operative would purchase a television and return it to the store after placing a bomb inside. Vinas testified that such an attack would create a big economic fallout in the United States.
Vinas testified that he drew a map for a senior figure in al Qaeda, Younis al Mauretani, showing all the LIRR train lines. Mauretani decided the best scheme would be to launch a suicide bombing on a train as it entered a tunnel. And he told Vinas that preferably a white operative with Western travel documents would be tasked to carry out the attack.
Vinas claimed that he only suggested the plot to al Qaeda, and was not himself going to return to the United States to carry it out. He was later arrested in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Vinas said no final decision was made about the LIRR plot. The idea to bomb a Wal-Mart store was ultimately rejected by al Qaeda.
Al Mauretani was then one of al Qaeda's rising stars. According to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, Mauretani was offered the opportunity to take charge of al Qaeda's external operations the previous year but had turned down the position. Mauretani then collaborated closely with the Libyan operative Atiyah abd al Rahham, who by the late 2000s had emerged as day-to-day commander of global operations for the terrorist network.
Mauretani was arrested by Pakistani authorities in Quetta in August 2011.
In several hours of testimony, Vinas also revealed new details of his recruitment by al Qaeda and his interactions with al Qaeda commanders in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
He described how, through contacts he made in Lahore, he was able to join a militant outfit conducting border raids against against U.S. and Afghan troops in Afghanistan less than two weeks after flying in to Pakistan. He testified the group was commanded by a Pakistani militant called Shaah Saab whose fighters were based in Peshawar and in the Mohmand Tribal Agency. Saab's group reportedly had ties to the Pakistani militant group Lashkar e Taiba.
Vinas left the group in December 2007 after becoming frustrated that he was not receiving the training he wanted. He also said he found out that the group had links to the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence services. "I didn't want to do ISI's dirty work," Vinas testified.
Saab was reportedly executed the next year after being captured in a confrontation with a rival militant group.
After many frustrating attempts, Vinas described finally connecting with al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He described attending three training courses inside mud huts in the mountains and meeting with some of the top leaders of the terrorist group, including the Egyptian Mustafa abu al Yazid, the Libyans Atiyah abd al Rahman and Abu Yayha al Libi, and Saleh al Somali, an East African operative who Vinas testified was the "senior emir for the international operations program."
During the summer of 2008, Vinas described joining an al Qaeda expedition to fire rockets on a U.S. base in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. Vinas said he was tasked with climbing a nearby hill to watch out for Pakistani helicopters as the group fired four rockets at the American base. The rockets all missed their target.
Vinas testified he began to resent al Somali, after the al Qaeda commander blocked him from traveling to Peshawar to wire money to his "girlfriend" in Cuba. Vinas had met her several years previously on a trip to the Caribbean island. Vinas testified that he appealed to Yazid, who overruled al Somali, and gave him permission to travel to Peshawar.
Vinas pleaded guilty in January 2009 to helping al Qaeda plan a bomb attack on the Long Island Railroad and has yet to be sentenced.