A former McDonald’s employee from South London was personally schooled by a senior Al-Qaeda boss on how to carry out a deadly suicide attack at Heathrow Airport, targeting passengers arriving from the US and Israel, US court papers reportedly reveal.
Minh Quang Pham, a 33-year-old Muslim convert from New Cross, is facing a possible 50-year sentence after pleading guilty to joining Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist group’s Yemen offshoot.
According to court documents seen by the Sunday Times, Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al-Qaeda boss reportedly credited with radicalizing a generation of terrorists through his internet sermons, gave almost £5,000 and a “clean” laptop to Pham to plan the alleged attack.
Pham, a former member of the banned al-Muhajiroun group, planned on using the money to rent a house in the UK to construct the explosive device, and to purchase the chemicals and other materials needed for the alleged attack, the court documents reportedly state.
The Al-Qaeda chief, who was later killed by a US drone strike, allegedly told Pham to tape metal bolts around the bomb to cause maximum fatalities. The documents of the alleged Heathrow scenario are based on transcripts of FBI interviews with Pham, filed by US prosecutors to a federal court in Manhattan before his sentencing.
Pham left his pregnant wife to join Awlaki, a US citizen, in Yemen for eight months in 2010. He was questioned by police after his return to the UK, and extradited to the US last year to face trial.
The FBI statement reportedly reveals that Awlaki spent a day training Pham in bomb-making. Awlaki was killed in Yemen in September 2011.
One FBI transcript, based on Pham’s interview, reportedly states: “Pham approached Awlaki and offered to conduct a suicide attack and ‘sacrifice himself’ on behalf of Al-Qaeda upon his return to the United Kingdom.
“Awlaki instructed Pham to target the arrivals section of Heathrow international airport. In particular, Pham was to target arrivals from the United States or Israel . . . Pham intended to conduct the attack by concealing the explosive device in a backpack.”
It is believed that the airport bomb would have been made from TATP, a compound used by the Brussels attackers who killed 35 people in three attacks on March 22. The FBI transcript refers to acetone, a chemical found in nail polish remover, which Pham could have accessed “through the nail shop that his sister operated.”
Pham denied that he planned to carry out the Heathrow attack, but pleaded guilty to three separate counts of terrorism, including providing “material support” to AQAP. His defense lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, reportedly told the court that any statements made by Pham regarding allegations of violence were “a ruse so Pham would be allowed to leave the [AQAP] safe house and Yemen to return home to his family in London and obtain medical treatment for a severe case of scabies.”
According to the Sunday Times, some crucial evidence comes from Ahmed Warsame, a former conduit between AQAP and an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, Al-Shabaab. In a statement to Scotland Yard, Warsame, who was captured in 2011, reportedly described meeting Pham and Awlak in Yemen. Warsame identified him in a photo of armed jihadists published in AQAP’s propaganda magazine, for which Pham had allegedly worked.