NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Vietnamese-born man who U.S. authorities say was instructed by a top figure with al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate to carry out a suicide attack at London’s Heathrow Airport was sentenced on Friday to 40 years in prison.
Minh Quang Pham, 33, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan in Manhattan after pleading guilty in January to charges he provided material support to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Nathan cited Pham’s renunciation of the militant group as a reason for not imposing a 50-year term sought by prosecutors. But she said he deserved more than the mandatory minimum 30 years due to his role in the “horrific” bomb plot.
“Given this, he must face a significantly severe sentence,” she said.
Pham, a graphic artist who left behind a pregnant wife in Britain to travel to Yemen in 2010, has admitted he helped prepare the Islamist militant group’s online propaganda magazine, Inspire, and received military-type training.
But prosecutors said he did more than just that for the group, agreeing to carry out a never-executed plot to construct and detonate an explosive device in the arrival area at Heathrow after returning to Britain from Yemen.
Prosecutors said Pham was trained on how to carry out the suicide attack by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric who became a leader in the group. He was killed in a September 2011 U.S. drone attack.
On his return to London in July 2011, Pham was detained by authorities at Heathrow, who discovered items including a live round of armor-piercing ammunition. He was arrested at the U.S. government’s request in June 2012.
In court, Pham’s lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, disputed that he planned to carry out the attack, pointing to his time out of custody as demonstrating he had no intention of following through on al-Awlaki’s instructions.
Pham likewise said that while he had made a “very serious mistake” in joining al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, he “never intended to hurt or harm anybody.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Skotko said Pham likely knew he was under surveillance and delayed his plans, and said he even called al-Awlaki while in Britain.
“There’s no reason why he would tell the truth today other than he fears the imposition of the severe sentence that he deserves,” she said.
Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Frances Kerry
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