MANHATTAN (CN) - Moments after British citizen Minh Quang Pham admitted to helping create propaganda for al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen, a federal prosecutor revealed more details of Pham's alleged participation in a plot to attack London's Heathrow Airport.
Ever since Pham's arrest in March of last year, speculation has swirled around the identities of two U.S. citizens identified as his accomplices in his indictment.
One was described as the author of "I Am Proud to Be a Traitor to America," an article attributed to be Pakistani-American Samir Khan, who was killed drone strike with Colorado-born militant Anwar al-Awlaki on Sept. 30, 2011.
Prosecutors confirmed suspicions as to at least one of the men in a motion filed two days before Christmas, which said that Awlaki "directed Pham to detonate" an improvised explosive device at Heathrow Airport in London.
While prosecutors never charged Pham with such a plot, his indictment notes that authorities at Heathrow found he had a live round of .762 caliber armor-piercing ammunition roughly two months before the drone attack on Khan and Awlaki.
A cooperating witness in Yemen said that Pham "almost always" carried a Kalashnikov assault rifle, which uses this ammunition.
On Friday, Pham pleaded guilty to supporting and receiving military training from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and a separate weapons charge, opening him up to possible life in prison when he is sentenced on April 14.
Prosecutors agreed that his suggested sentence under federal guidelines call for a 50-year sentence under the terms of the plea deal.
Pham, a 33-year-old British Muslim of Vietnamese descent, read from a carefully worded plea that adhered closely to the language of the charged statutes.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Buckley, however, said for the first time that Awlaki instructed Pham how to make an IED, and paid him $10,000 to detonate one at the arrivals terminal for U.S. and Israeli flights at Heathrow.
Pham's defense attorney Bobbi Stearnheim bristled at the mention of the alleged plot.
"There are things that Mr. Buckley raised that are beyond the scope of the indictment," she told the court.
She insisted that there was "no proof" that her client "did anything to follow through" with the attack.
Prosecutors first mentioned the Heathrow plot in a motion asking to shield the identities of the jurors for their own protection. Anonymous juries have become increasingly common in the post-9/11 era, but defense attorneys have complained that they chip away at the presumption of innocence.
Stearnheim opposed the bid in a motion arguing that the "ongoing acts of terrorism worldwide, most recently in Paris and San Bernardino, coupled with the widely broadcast anti-Muslim rhetoric of Donald Trump" would have biased the jury against her client.
Today's guilty plea sidelines the trial that had been set for February.
With more information expected to emerge before sentencing, the Heathrow allegations shed light on the government's longtime justification for bombing two of its own citizens.
U.S. officials have defended the strike on Awlaki and Khan on the grounds that they were not merely propagandists for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's magazine "Inspire," but had gone "operational" in actively planning attacks against the United States.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's highlighted Awlaki's role in a statement commenting on how Pham "swore a terrorist's oath" to his band of Yemeni militants.
"Pham traveled to Yemen to receive terrorist training, including instructions in bomb-making by the now-deceased senior al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula leader Anwar Awlaqi," he wrote. "Vowing to wage violent jihad and brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle, Pham provided material support to the highest levels of AQAP."
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