A Vietnamese man pleaded guilty to terrorism charges Friday, just weeks before a scheduled trial, agreeing not to challenge any prison sentence between 30 and 50 years.
Minh Quang Pham pleaded guilty in federal court to providing material support to a terror group, conspiracy and a weapons offense. Judge Allison Nathan set sentencing for April 14, when Pham faces a minimum of 30 years and a maximum of life.
Wearing a prison uniform, Pham spoke in English as he described the crimes to which he pleaded guilty, saying he provided material support in 2011 to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula while he was in Yemen. He said he knew then that he was participating in terrorism directed at the United States.
He said he assisted in the preparation of the group’s English propaganda publication, Inspire magazine. Reading from a statement he prepared with his defense attorneys, Pham said he also agreed in 2011 to receive military training from the organization, and he carried and used an automatic assault rifle.
Pham, who had faced a trial in Manhattan scheduled to start in early February, said he knew when he joined the conspiracy that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula “was an organization engaged in terrorist activity and terrorism.”
Prosecutors said Pham went from the United Kingdom to Yemen in 2010 to pledge allegiance to the group.
Pham was arrested at Heathrow International Airport when he returned in July 2011 from his six-month Yemen trip.
“Minh Quang Pham sought and received military-style training from an al-Qaida affiliate with the intent to martyr himself and inflict harm on behalf of the group,” FBI Assistant Director Paul M. Abbate said in a release.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Buckley told the judge Friday that the government would have proven at trial that Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born al-Qaida leader who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011, had directed Pham to detonate explosives made with household chemicals in the arrivals area of London’s Heathrow Airport where U.S. citizens and Israelis arrive. Such an attack never occurred.
When the judge asked Pham if that and other allegations described by Buckley were true, Pham was stopped by his lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, who said Pham was only admitting to the charges outlined in the plea deal he struck with prosecutors.
The U.S. State Department designated al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula as a terrorist organization in January 2010 after it claimed responsibility for attempted terrorist attacks against the U.S., authorities said.
They said the group claimed responsibility in 2009 for an attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound passenger plane from Europe and later claimed responsibility for an October 2010 plot to send bomb-laden packages on U.S.-bound cargo planes.
Prosecutors say al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has called on followers to attack civilians and has taken credit for coordinating attacks overseas, including the January 2015 Paris attack on the French publication Charlie Hebdo, which killed a dozen people.