Washington-The Qaeda bomb-making instructor carefully demonstrated to his student how to mix the chemicals to make a volatile powder. Then he supervised a test explosion and added a sinister final tip, “tape bolts around the homemade bomb to produce lethal shrapnel.”
The explosive expert’s identity, revealed by a Qaeda operative facing sentencing next week, came as a surprise as he was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam who had joined al-Qaeda in Yemen and became the terrorist network’s leading English-language propagandist.
Al-Awlaki had long been known for public oratory on behalf of al-Qaeda before he was killed in a drone strike in 2011 on President Obama’s orders; making him the first American citizen killed without criminal charges or trial in the campaign against terrorism.
Nevertheless, new court filings in New York offered the most detailed account yet of a hidden side of al-Awlaki’s work in al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, as a hands-on trainer who taught recruits how to make bombs, gave them money for missions and offered suggestions about how to carry out suicide attacks.
The papers, part of a sentencing memorandum submitted by the government, were filed Tuesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan in the case of al-Awlaki’s former bomb-making student, Minh Quang Pham, a Vietnamese-British convert to Islam.
He has pleaded guilty to three terrorism-related counts and is to be sentenced on Monday.
In their papers, federal prosecutors suggested that 50 years would be an appropriate sentence for Pham, who is in his early 30s and traveled secretly to Yemen in 2010, where he swore allegiance to al-Qaeda’s affiliate there and worked on the group’s online propaganda publication, “Inspire.”
The court papers made it clear that Pham admired al-Awlaki. He “visibly teared up” when discussing the latter, and he repeatedly referred to al-Awlaki with the honorific title “Sheikh,” prosecutors wrote.
The papers include detailed summaries of interviews of Pham by the FBI after the British authorities sent him to the United States to face prosecution.
In one interview, Pham recalled the day that al-Awlaki visited a safe house in Yemen where Pham was staying.
Pham said meeting al-Awlaki gave him “an amazing feeling,” an FBI memo says.
A separate court filing by Pham’s lawyer, Bobbi C. Sternheim, includes a 15-page handwritten letter from Mr. Pham to the judge, Alison J. Nathan.
In the letter, Pham said that al-Awlaki was the “highest-ranking” member of al-Qaeda in Yemen that he had met there during his stay.
He also wrote that he had “made the right choice” by leaving the group in July 2011, noting that al-Awlaki and a younger American Qaeda member, Samir Khan, were both killed in the drone strike that September.
“Had I stayed,” Pham added, “I would have most likely been killed alongside al-Awlaki and Khan.”
In the letter, Pham claimed that he wanted “to renounce all acts of terrorism.”
Since al-Awlaki’s death, some critics have suggested that the cleric should not have been killed because he was more ideologue than operative.
In a 2013 speech, Obama countered that al-Awlaki had gone operational, pointing to his role in directing the so-called “underwear bomber.”
However, before the government’s disclosure of Pham’s statements, which were first cited briefly in court before he pleaded guilty in January, there was little evidence that al-Awlaki had developed the expertise to take a direct role in building bombs or teaching others to do so.
A prolific lecturer and preacher who mixed fluent Arabic and English, first as a popular American Imam and later as an online recruiter for al-Qaeda, al-Awlaki was viewed by some counterterrorism officials as even more dangerous than Osama bin Laden before both men were killed in 2011.
His huge online presence outlived him, and his influence has turned up in dozens of terrorism cases after his death, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, and the killing of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, last December.
Pham told FBI agents in interviews last year that al-Awlaki himself conducted the bomb training in Yemen’s Ma’rib Province.
“During the training, al-Awlaki showed Pham how to mix chemicals to make an explosive powder,” an FBI agent wrote. They set off a small test using a tin can, and “the explosion generated enough force to launch the tin can away from Pham and into the air.”
Pham described al-Awlaki as the only Qaeda member he had met “who was qualified and capable of planning jihadist operations against the West because al-Awlaki had lived in America,” one FBI summary says.
Al-Awlaki directed Pham to use “great caution” while in Yemen in his communications with outsiders.
Pham drafted emails and saved them on a USB thumb drive, which he then gave to other Qaeda members who were tasked with sending the messages on Pham’s behalf, prosecutors said in their memo.
Later, when Pham prepared to leave Yemen, al-Awlaki gave him 6,000 British pounds, about $10,000 at the time, on which he directed him to use them to attack Heathrow Airport near London.
Pham told investigators that al-Awlaki had told him to target crowds in the arrivals area for flights from the United States or Israel.
Pham told agents he had changed his views and never tried to carry out the attack.
Moreover, al-Awlaki also gave Pham a new “clean” laptop to take with him to Britain, “so that Pham would not have any issues if authorities searched his computer,” the government wrote.
Pham also gave the fullest description to date of al-Awlaki’s oversight of “Inspire,” a collection of jihadist ideology and practical instructions for carrying out terrorist attacks.
Khan, the younger American member, would compile the articles and photographs for each issue, and al-Awlaki would “review and approve” them.
Then the contents would be loaded onto a USB drive and given to a courier to be taken to a safe place for uploading to the Internet.