Minh Quang Pham, whom I dubbed AQAP’s “graphic artist of mass destruction” because he was busted for providing graphic design skills to AQAP, got sentenced today; neither FBI nor SDNY have announced his sentence but it will be between 30 and 50 years in prison.
The government, as it tends to do, has submitted a bunch of documents as part of the sentencing process to inflate the magnitude of Pham’s acts, which largely consist of carrying a Kalashnikov he wasn’t really trained to use and helping Samir Khan make Inspire look prettier. With the documents, DOJ suggests Pham might have attacked Heathrow if he hadn’t been stopped when he was. Materials submitted as part of the sentencing process include:
The FBI 302s have the most detail, including that Awlaki gave Pham a “clean” computer that, as described, was not clean at all (a forensics report that is sealed in the docket reportedly found it had shared data with a computer that Warsame had been caught with) and the claim that Awlaki gave Pham a phone and an email account to contact him with — or to provide to new AQAP recruits (the story varies) — in the future. One 302 provides the rather incredible detail that “the email account AULAQI provided might have been a Hotmail account.”
We’re to believe that Awlaki, a guy who learned he was being wiretapped in November 2009, had been pursued using all resources of the US government for a year and a half, and who otherwise had a sophisticated understanding of US surveillance, was still using a Hotmail account in June 2011.
The final 302 (I don’t think the previous 3 include start and stop times, which is a telling omission) provides details of what Scott Shane has described as proof Anwar Awlaki was acting as a bomb making trainer close to the end of his life, based on the description of him teaching Pham, in a single day, “how to mix chemicals to make an explosive powder” that Pham used to detonate a tin can that “generated enough force to launch the tin can away from PHAM and into the air.” This was the training, the FBI implies, that AQAP gave Pham to prepare him to attack Heathrow Airport.
Here’s the thing, though: FBI didn’t record any of those interviews, in spite of an explicit policy presuming FBI will record custodial interviews that went into effect on July 11, 2014. There are exceptions FBI might, in a stretch, be claiming here (that because Pham was not yet in a formal detention center, he was not in custody, or that it was a national intelligence collecting interview that is nevertheless being used against him in sentencing; I’ve got an email in with the FBI to find out what their explanation is). But this seems like a clear-cut case, where, for their own credibility, FBI should have recorded the interviews.
Especially since Pham says they’re inaccurate.
For four days I have willfully sat with the agents to confess my association with AL-QAIDA + to make an appeal to the government for compassion. Brian said: “we are the best representatives to the government for you.”
The agenst [sic] had the opportunity to take recording but for some reason they did not do so. I only receive the FBI statements around couple months after my interviews. I then realize that they have omitted possibly 30 – 40% of what I’ve said, misunderstood many points + added some information I did not say. Had there been a recording, it would have shown a different picture. Had they been sincere in what they said about being “the best representatives to the government,” they would have shown me the draft of the statement for any needed correction before publishing it or have the interview recorded which would have revealed all the questions + answers.
Initially I didn’t want to tell them about the airport plot because it was something occurred in YEMEN which I never intended to do. I only want to leave YEMEN + had to accept a foreign operation. I told them that Imam ANWAR AL-AWLAQI (who was killed in a drone strike in Sept 2011) wanted me to do. The reason why I told the agents is because I felt pressured due to MATT posing the same question for 4 days, + on the 4th day he said: “Is there something they told you to do but decided not to?”
Later at the 5th interview, the prosecutor asks me if I intended to carry out the plot, Matt intervene + said “at that point did you accept it? I made it clear that I did not intended [sic] it but I only accept it + was willing to accept any plot to go home.
The expression I got from the was that, they were trying to paint a picture oof me of intending to return to carry out the plot + had I not been arrested, I would have carried out a suicide operation at Heathrow Airport.
Obviously Pham has good reason to want to insinuate he would never have conducted the plot (but then, he was free in the UK for 5 months and didn’t take any steps to do so, not even obtaining acetone from his sister’s nail salon). Then again, obviously the FBI has good reason to want to claim that Pham was more than the graphic artist who was never really trained in fighting that the other records show him to be.
The thing is, there’s no evidence in the record that makes this Heathrow attack look credible. There are some other really funny details about this story that I hope to return to. But I’m sure the story worked to ensure Pham would spend most of the rest of his life in a US SuperMax.
Update: I guess this is why they didn’t announce Pham’s sentence: Judge Alison Nathan delayed sentencing because of conflicting stories over whether Pham really intended to attack Heathrow, or whether he used that as a way to get out of Yemen (though she reportedly is inclined to side with the government). I think this is a sound result: the government actually hasn’t proven this attack was real (again, I have questions about whether even Awlaki designed it to be real). Moreover, Pham will get 30 years in any case.
The FBI might have a more (or less — who knows!!) credible case had they taped these interviews. Now they have to make their case in court.
I’ve long been tracking the case of Minh Quang Pham, whom I call the “graphic artist of mass destruction” because he is accused of helping Samir Khan on Inspire.
He was detained in the UK back in July 2011 (see the timeline). That December, the UK government tried to strip him of citizenship, but failed because that would have left him stateless (he’s originally from Vietnam but the government doesn’t treat him as a citizen). He was quickly charged here when efforts to strip him of UK citizenship failed. But since then, his citizenship case has been wending its way through the British courts.
Throughout this period, it was not officially recognized that Pham was the guy fighting for his citizenship.
Today and yesterday, his case was finally heard before UK’s Supreme Court, and his name made public. Here’s the Open Society report on his case (which also has a timeline!).
I suppose, if Pham loses, he will be sent to NY for trial. If he wins, he will force the UK to charge him there, which for a variety of reasons may get interesting. Remember: Pham should know the informant behind the UndieBomb 2.0 attack. Which may be why everyone wants to try him over here.
Amid a longer story about one-time Brits stripped of their citizenship and handled according to the Administration Disposition Matrix, Ian Cobain fills out the story of Minh Quang Pham (whose identity in the UK is protected under a legal gag and so is referred to as B2). Among other things, Cobain answers the question I raised here: how Pham materially supported Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula by (we infer) helping to produce Inspire between the time he was arrested upon returning from Yemen in July 2011 and the time the British Home Secretary Theresa May tried to strip him of citizenship in December of that year (see my timelines here): he was out on bail.
On arrival back at Heathrow airport, the Vietnamese-born man was searched by police and arrested when a live bullet was found in his rucksack. A few months later, while he was free on bail, May signed an order revoking his British citizenship.
But that would mean Pham was materially contributing to Inspire at a time when he was in the UK. The Brits have much stronger laws against even possessing Inspire. If we (and by association they) had evidence he was producing Inspire while out on bail, it should be easy to try him there.
Which is part of Pham’s current complaint, as he tries to avoid extradition to the US: he could have and should have been charged in the UK.
Within minutes of SIAC announcing its decision and granting B2 unconditional bail, he was rearrested while sitting in the cells at the SIAC building. The warrant had been issued by magistrates five weeks earlier, at the request of the US Justice Department. Moments after that, the FBI announced that B2 had been charged with five terrorism offences and faced up to 40 years in jail. He was driven straight from SIAC to Westminster magistrates’ court, where he faced extradition proceedings.
B2 continues to resist his removal to the US, with his lawyers arguing that he could have been charged in the UK. Indeed, the allegations made by the US authorities, if true, would appear to represent multiple breaches of several UK laws: the Terrorism Act 2000, the Terrorism Act 2006 and the Firearms Act 1968. Asked why B2 was not being prosecuted in the English courts – why, in other words, the Americans were having this particular headache, and not the British – a Crown Prosecution Service spokesperson said: “As this is a live case and the issue of forum may be raised by the defence in court, it would be inappropriate for us to discuss this in advance of the extradition hearing.”
One of the charges against Pham is that he conspired to obtain military training. Which would seem to rely on Ahmed Warsame’s testimony. But it’s not clear how much of the material support charges Warsame could support, given that Pham’s material support period extends a number of months beyond Warsame’s arrest.
Note, however, that there may be overlap between the UndieBomb 2.0 mole working with AQAP (who may have arrived in AQAP 2 months before Pham left) and the tail end of the charge. In which case they may be shipping Pham to the US to better hide the mole’s role in all this.
Of course, all these charges may primarily be about protecting the mole.
The WaPo has an interesting story about US intelligence efforts to disrupt the most recent release of Inspire magazine. While the confirmation that the US was responsible for the recent disrupted release is not surprising, I find this rather interesting.
“You can make it hard for them to distribute it, or you can mess with the content. And you can mess with the content in a way that is obvious or in ways that are not obvious,” said one intelligence official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal debates.
WaPo’s sources are now bragging that they’ve altered the content of Inspire, in addition to delaying its release.
While the article focuses on this most recent sabotage, it rather bizarrely makes no mention that the first installment of Inspire was hacked in very similar way (purportedly by the Brits).
In the case of Inspire, the debate stretches back three years. The first issue contained a recipe for making a bomb using common materials, such as nails and a pressure cooker like the ones used in Boston. The title of the article was “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
There was also a threat to Molly Norris, a Seattle cartoonist who published a satirical cartoon about the prophet Muhammad. “She should be taken as a prime target of assassination,” wrote Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who was killed in a U.S. drone strike.
Though it does quote Keith Alexander making the case for sabotage.
“It’s obvious if people are calling for crazies to murder a U.S. citizen, why wouldn’t you stop it?” said one former official, recalling the debate in which National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander argued on behalf of disruption.
In that case, the administration decided against action, in part because the CIA preferred to use the site to gather intelligence. In subsequent debates, the danger of an imminent threat “really made the difference” in terms of whether to disrupt issues of the magazine, according to a former administration official.
DOD and CIA have, according to public reports without details, had significant deconfliction issues in the past on cyber operations. Are we so convinced DOD didn’t help the Brits insert cupcake recipes in that first installment?
And this article doesn’t mention something I’ve been tracking for a while: the case of Vietnamese-English Minh Quang Pham graphic artist, whom the US charged with materially support Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula last year. Of note, when they charged him, they called for him to forfeit any means he had to influence AQAP.
As a result of planning and perpetuating Federal crimes of terrorism against the United States … defendant  shall forfeit … all right, title, and interest in all assets, foreign and domestic, affording a source of influence over al Shabaab and AQAP.
Which is all the more interesting still considering the period for which the US charged Pham for material support includes five months — from July to December 2011 — during which a great deal of evidence suggests he was in British custody.
I suppose it might make it easier to hack Inspire if you had their graphic artist in secret custody.
TBIJ has a troubling report (see also this Independent story) on a number of British citizens who have been stripped of their citizenship so they can be targeted by drones or rendered here to the US. I described the fate of one of them — Mahdi Hashi — here. Another was the Russian spy Anna Chapman, though that happened after her arrest here.
I’m particularly interested, however, in this entry in TBIJ’s report.
Deprived December 2011. Successfully challenged. Government now appealing.
This is one of three known cases where notice has been served on an individual while they were still in the UK. B2 came to the UK as a child with his refugee Vietnamese parents. He became a UK citizen in 1995, and later converted to Islam. In 2010 he reportedly traveled to Yemen, where MI5 alleges he trained with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He apparently returned to the UK in July 2011 and the Home Secretary informed him he would lose his British citizenship that December. B2 appealed, saying the decision would make him stateless. The Vietnamese government agreed that he was not its citizen, and the order was overturned. However the Home Office told the Bureau it is appealing. B2 is thought still to be in the UK.
These details make B2 sound like Minh Quang Pham, whom I wrote about here and here. Though here’s the timeline DOJ offered when they conspicuously announced Pham’s arrest last May, with a few additional details from Pham’s docket included.
December 2010: Pham travels from the UK to Yemen.
March 2011: Pham’s military training in Yemen begins.
March and April 2011: Pham carries a Kalashnikov.
April 2011: Pham works with Samir Khan and meets Anwar al-Awlaki.
July 2011: End date for military training in Yemen.
September 27, 2011: AQAP releases Inspire, Issue 7.
September 30, 2011: Khan and Awlaki killed in drone strike.
December 2011: End date of material support charges.
May 24, 2012: Pham indicted in NY.
June 29, 2012: Pham “arrested,” while still being held by British authorities in immigration custody. Indictment publicly released by DOJ.
August 23, 2012: Pham’s indictment officially unsealed.
Compare that to these dates regarding the UK’s efforts to strip B2’s citizenship.
February 9, 1983: B2 born in Vietnam.
August 1989: B2 travels with parents to UK, where they are granted asylum.
1995: B2 and his family get British citizenship.
December 2010: B2 travels to Yemen.
July 25, 2011: B2 leaves Yemen.
December 20, 2011: British Secretary of State decides to strip B2 of his citizenship.
December 22, 2011: British SoS provides notice and strips B2 of citizenship.
January 13, 2012: B2 appeals decision based on claim he would be stateless if he lost British citizenship.
June 13-14, 2012: B2’s citizenship hearing.
June 29, 2012: B2’s appeal succeeds.
Much of this lines up perfectly: The December 2010 departure for Yemen, the July 2011 end to military training, and the December 2011 immigration detention.
More important still, note that the British court released its decision about B2 on the same day — June 29, 2012 — that DOJ hastily announced Pham’s arrest, though without formally unsealing his indictment (note, DOJ’s original press release, though not FBI’s version, got disappeared, though can still be accessed via Internet Archive; see also this screen cap showing the press release missing).
The only discrepancy — and it may not be one — is B2’s claim he left Yemen on July 25, 2011. While DOJ’s military training charges end in July 2011, its material support charges continue until December 2011. Though note this Telegraph article says Pham was arrested when he arrived in Heathrow on July 27, 2011.
In short, unless there are a whole lot more Vietnamese refugees to Britain wandering back and forth from Yemen on the very same days, B2 is Pham.
Not only that, but it’s clear his “arrest” appears to be nothing more than an attempt to establish a fall-back position if and when holding him in immigration detention becomes impossible because he gets his citizenship restored. Barring that, they may well leave Pham in immigration custody in the UK indefinitely.
The most curious aspect of all this, though, is that material support charge that continues while, at least according to the Telegraph, Pham was in custody. Maybe the Telegraph is wrong, but if not, it means — according to the US — Pham continued to materially support AQAP while in British custody.