Bryant Neal Vinas' may have had a "specialized knowledge" of the subway system and the Long Island Rail Road, but the real threat he posed was in his potential to recruit others into jihad, according to police sources briefed on the case.
Vinas had, in the words of one source, been vouched for, much the way a made member of the mob will put in a good word for an associate.
That, sources said, allowed him to meet al-Qaida bosses, passing on to them what he knows of the two massive transit systems to operations chiefs for al-Qaida. It is unlikely, however, that such information was enough to carry out an attack, the sources said.
Al-Qaida members are generally suspicious of recruits from the West, and, given their patience when planning an attack, would have vetted any information he provided, sources said.
Still, sources said, by traveling to secret al-Qaida compounds in Pakistan, Vinas was able to establish credentials that could have proved valuable if he tried to convince others, particularly disaffected Americans, to pursue jihad.
Instead, Vinas is now cooperating with authorities, providing information expected to be used at upcoming trials in Europe. Some of what he knows, sources said, could be as minor as placing particular suspects at al-Qaida compounds.
"Information like that is just one piece of the puzzle, but it's one more piece that we have," one of the sources said.
At the time of his arrest, the FBI alerted the NYPD and other city and state officials about what it called "uncorroborated but plausible information."
The NYPD and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority responded in kind, stepping up police patrols even as they acknowledged there was no specific evidence that an attack was about to take place.
"There was never an imminent threat to our system," the MTA said yesterday in a statement.
With Alfonso Castillo