In surprise, underwear bomber pleads guilty
DETROIT - The trial of a man accused of trying to blow up a commercial airliner with a bomb sewed into his underwear ended yesterday, just a day after it had begun, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused, announced that he would plead guilty to all of the federal counts against him.
Prosecutors and federal agents seemed stunned, if pleased, and declared that the plea was evidence that the US court system, as opposed to a military tribunal, could bring a suitable outcome to a terrorism case. Anthony Chambers, a legal adviser assigned to Abdulmutallab, who was representing himself in court, said that he was disappointed with Abdulmutallab’s decision, but that it was his choice.
Almost two years after fellow passengers flying aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 watched in panic and confusion as smoke and flames rose from Abdulmutallab’s lap, he pleaded guilty to eight crimes, including conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, attempted murder, and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. He was offered no deal from prosecutors in exchange for his plea. He faces sentencing in January, but prosecutors said the nature of some of the crimes he pleaded guilty to automatically required a life sentence with no chance of parole.
The choice appeared less a strategic legal calculation than an opportunity for Abdulmutallab, who has described himself as a member of Al Qaeda and who prosecutors say conspired in his plan with other members of Al Qaeda, to make a public statement certain to reach a wide audience.
After telling Judge Nancy G. Edmunds that he was indeed pleading guilty to each count against him, Abdulmutallab read a statement he had written saying that his behavior may have violated US law but that it was in keeping with Muslim law and that his efforts to harm Americans were retribution for US acts around the world.
“I attempted to use an explosive device which in the US law is a weapon of mass destruction, which I call a blessed weapon to save the lives of innocent Muslims, for US use of weapons of mass destruction on Muslim populations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and beyond,’’ Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian citizen in his 20s, said quietly and calmly.
In repeated appearances in court, Abdulmutallab, the well-educated son of a wealthy family, has almost seemed to have two personas: a polite, silent observer, and an unruly onlooker who would suddenly yell out messages of support for Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, a leading figure in a Qaeda affiliate in Yemen who was recently killed by a missile from a US drone.
“If you laugh at us now,’’ he said yesterday, during the statement in open court that went on for several minutes, “we will laugh at you later.’’
On Dec. 25, 2009, after almost eight hours of flying from Amsterdam, the plane was preparing to land in Detroit when a loud pop sounded from among the passengers. Some among the nearly 300 passengers quickly turned to Abdulmutallab, whose undershorts were clearly burning. Passengers grabbed him from his seat, flight attendants extinguished the blaze, and pilots made an emergency landing at the airport near Detroit.
The jarring end of a trial that had been expected to last a month drew praise from prosecutors, federal agents, and other authorities. Many said the results offered a definitive counterpoint to critics who had argued for several years that terrorism cases - including this one - ought to be handled within a military system. Prosecutors here said that this case had proven that civilian court should remain an option.
In Washington, Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general, issued a statement on the verdict.
“Contrary to what some have claimed, today’s plea removes any doubt that our courts are one of the most effective tools we have to fight terrorism and keep the American people safe,’’ he said. “Our priority in this case was to ensure that we arrested a man who tried to do us harm, that we collected actionable intelligence from him, and that we prosecuted him in a way that was consistent with the rule of law.’’
All along, Abdulmutallab’s trial had been expected to reveal far more than had been publicly known up about his ties to Al Qaeda; to Awlaki, the US-born cleric; and to the individual who provided him with an assignment to blow up a plane.
But with the trial over, such details now appeared unlikely to emerge.
Asked to elaborate on the Al Qaeda ties, Barbara L. McQuade, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, declined yesterday to go beyond the broad outlines that had already come out in court.