Nigerian pleads guilty to attempted plane bombing
Al-Qaida operative tells court he wanted to avenge U.S. killings of Muslims abroad
Robert Snell and George Hunter/ The Detroit News
Detroit— Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab said he tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane to avenge the killing of Muslims worldwide by the United States, an admission following a surprise guilty plea Wednesday in a high-profile terrorism case.
The guilty plea and a threatening rant against the United States abruptly halted the second day of the “underwear bomber’s” trial in federal court and came almost two years after he tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009.
He pleaded guilty to eight charges, including attempted murder, attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism. The 25-year-old Nigerian and self-described al-Qaida operative faces up to life in prison when sentenced Jan. 12.
Abdulmutallab said the bomb was a “blessed weapon to save the lives of innocent Muslims” and that he wanted to retaliate against the United States for its support of Israel.
“Participation in jihad against the United States is considered among the most virtuous of deeds in Islam and is highly encouraged in the Quran,” Abdulmutallab told the judge, reading from a hand-written statement.
Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, on Wednesday said Abdulmutallab has a perverse understanding of the Quran.
“The Quran clearly states whoever kills an innocent soul has committed an act like murdering all of humanity, and the Quran commands Muslims not to kill themselves,” Walid said.
“Abdulmutallab’s failed attack meant to kill innocent people as well as himself, which are clear violations of the Quran.”
Abdulmutallab did not negotiate any deal with the government, and legal experts expect he will spend the rest of his life in the nation’s only Supermax prison, which is in Colorado and dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” That’s where several high-profile terrorists and inmates are incarcerated, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid.
Plea marks major victory
Abdulmutallab was on trial for a crime conceived in Yemen, where he was trained by al-Qaida operatives. It was a crime hailed by slain terror leader Osama bin Laden and inspired by radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who investigators say helped radicalize Abdulmutallab, transforming him from a privileged graduate school student into an international terrorist.
The failed bombing exposed gaps in airport security after prosecutors say Abdulmutallab managed to board the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with the device, an act that led to stiffer security measures nationwide.
The guilty plea marked a major victory against terrorism for the U.S. Justice Department.
“Fighting terrorism is the No. 1 priority of the Department of Justice,” U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said. “We understand our deep responsibility to the American people to prevent terrorism. It’s what keeps us up at night, and we’re so glad this defendant will spend the rest of his life in prison.”
The plea revived criticism from those who believe Abdulmutallab should have been tried in military court.
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Twp., pointed to the expense in prosecuting Abdulmutallab and fears expressed by potential jurors as reasons why he shouldn’t have been tried in a civilian court. Miller said the trial gave Abdulmutallab a platform to spew hatred.
She called the guilty plea “a rare outbreak of common sense.”
McQuade defended the approach. “We got a chance to show the world that our system of justice works,” she said.
Jurors declined to talk to the media about the case or the guilty plea.
Unexpected end to trial
Passenger Dimitrious Bessis welcomed an end to the terror case.
A Georgia resident who sat two rows behind Abdulmutallab on the plane, Bessis, 47, tried to put out the fire with a Brooks Brothers hat his father gave him.
“I have nightmares about what happened,” he said, “but it’s over with, thank God.”
The plea was unexpected and ended a criminal trial filled with unexpected outbursts by Abdulmutallab.
He fired court-appointed lawyers last year. During court hearings, he propped a foot on the defense table and shouted that bin Laden and al-Awlaki were alive. He called the United States “a cancer.”
The plea came against the advice of his legal adviser, Detroit lawyer Anthony Chambers.
Chambers was disappointed by the plea.
“It’s like a fighter who prepared for a 10-round fight and then it got canceled,” Chambers said.
Abdulmutallab started discussing a guilty plea privately Tuesday with Chambers during a break in the trial.
The trial continued anyway with prosecutors delivering an opening statement and putting one witness on the stand, a passenger from Wisconsin who saw Abdulmutallab enveloped in flames.
The trial resumed Wednesday, but the judge quickly called a recess before jurors entered the courtroom. Approximately one hour later, Abdulmutallab returned to the courtroom and pleaded guilty.
“I believe he is a misguided, impressionable young man, as many college students are,” Chambers said. “And I think he had something he wanted to say.”
Chambers said he believes he could have won the case.
“I thought the evidence was lacking,” the attorney said.
Chambers pointed to incriminating statements Abdulmutallab made to federal agents and a nurse at the University of Michigan Hospital following the attack.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds said national security fears justified agents not reading Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, but the issue could have been appealed following the trial.
After the trial turned into a plea hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel asked Abdulmutallab if he carried an explosive device on board.
“If you say so,” said Abdulmutallab, dressed in a dark sport coat and a long khaki-colored dashiki that flowed to his ankles.
“You knew it was an explosive, correct?” Tukel asked him.
“Yes,” he answered.
“It was intended to explode?” Tukel asked him.
“Yes,” Abdulmutallab answered.
Afterward, Abdulmutallab railed against the United States.
“The United States should be warned,” he said. “If you laugh at us now, we will laugh at you later in this life and at the day of judgment.”
He shouted “Allahu Akbar (God is great)!” before being handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom by a deputy U.S. Marshal.
The judge then called jurors into the courtroom, announced the plea and excused them.
Jurors filed out one by one, the jury room door closing behind them.
From behind that door, a cheer erupted, the sound carrying into the judge’s courtroom.
The judge laughed.
Underwear bomber pleads guilty in surprise move
DETROIT FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
After his underwear bomb fizzled on an overseas flight to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab couldn’t wait to tell everyone he was on a mission from al-Qaida.
In a surprise move on Wednesday, the second day of his federal terrorism trial in Detroit, he told a judge.
“In late 2009, in fulfillment of a religious obligation, I decided to participate in jihad against the United States,” the 25-year-old Nigerian student-turned-extremist told U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds upon pleading guilty to eight charges that will send him to prison for life.
“Participation in jihad against the United States is considered among the most virtuous of deeds in Islam,” Abdulmutallab said in fluent English.
Abdulmutallab, who pleaded guilty against the advice of his lawyer, said he wanted to blow up the plane carrying nearly 300 people in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel and the killing of “innocent Muslims” in Israel, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.
He said he was guilty under U.S. law, but not Muslim law. He warned that a “great calamity” will befall the U.S. if it continues on its course.
“If you laugh at us now,” he warned, “we will laugh at you later.”
Guilty plea doesn’t shock everyone
From the beginning, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab said he never wanted a lawyer.
And on Wednesday, on the second day of his internationally watched terrorism trial in Detroit, he ignored his lawyer’s advice and pleaded guilty to everything federal prosecutors said he did.
“I’m disappointed,” Abdulmutallab’s standby lawyer, Anthony Chambers, said after the two-hour drama played out in U.S. District Court in Detroit.
“I would never, ever advise a client to plead guilty to life without parole — under any circumstances,” Chambers added, noting that Abdulmutallab had been considering the move since his trial opened Tuesday.
“Nothing the government did brought this decision about,” Chambers said. “He’s at peace with his decision. He’s very understanding of his consequences. … He wanted to make a statement, and he did.”
Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner with a bomb concealed in his underwear on Dec. 25, 2009, at the behest of al-Qaida. Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate the bomb over Woodhaven, used the plea as a platform to rail against U.S. treatment of Muslims worldwide.
Although court observers were stunned by Abdulmutallab’s decision, some legal experts said they expected nothing less from the self-professed jihadist.
“You have to remember, these people are willing to die,” said Seattle attorney Charlie Swift, who has represented terrorism defendants, including Osama bin Laden’s former driver. “The political statement to them is far more important than any potential they might have to escape punishment.”
Swift added: “To plead not guilty is to say, ‘I’m not a martyr. I’m not a hero. I never planned to do those things.’ For those individuals, it’s unthinkable.”
Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty to eight counts, including conspiring to commit an act of terrorism, use of a weapon of mass destruction and carrying a firearm or destructive device during a crime of violence — the latter carries a mandatory life sentence.
Chambers said he likely would serve his sentence at the federal super-max prison in Florence, Colo., where other convicted terrorists are serving their time. Edmunds set his sentencing for Jan. 12.
At a news conference Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said the guilty plea proves that civilian courts “are an appropriate tool for bringing terrorists to justice.”
“We got a chance to show the world that our system of justice works,” McQuade said.
Her boss, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, agreed.
“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 in a statement Wednesday.
Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Michigan, said Abdulmutallab has a distorted view of the Quran.
“His actions and speech are antithetical to how 99.99% of Muslims worldwide understand the Quran,” he said. “The Quran says whoever kills an innocent person, it is as if they have killed all of mankind.”
He also noted that the Quran doesn’t condone suicide.
John Freeman, a former federal prosecutor in Detroit, said the guilty plea probably came as a relief to prosecutors, despite compelling evidence.
“Anytime you put a case in front of a jury, there always are risks,” Freeman said. “I’ve seen plenty of cases where you were expecting a certain result and the jury surprised everyone in the courtroom.”
Detroit FBI chief Andrew Arena said he was surprised by Abdulmutallab’s plea.
“I didn’t see this one coming, guys. I got to tell you, I was shocked,” Arena said at the news conference, praising federal law enforcement’s handling of the case.
Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said there’s little chance Edmunds will allow Abdulmutallab to withdraw his guilty plea, given the lengths she took to make sure he knew what he was doing.
Henning said Abdulmutallab will get another chance to get on a soapbox at sentencing.
After that, Henning said: “We’ll never hear from him again.”
During his guilty plea, Abdulmutallab said he was inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born al-Qaida leader who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen on Sept. 30.
During his plea, Abdulmutallab gave an abbreviated account of the journey that brought him to Detroit.
He said he started in Yemen, then traveled to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, the Netherlands — where he boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam — and the U.S.
Prosecutors had strong evidence: a planeload of witnesses, burns on Abdulmutallab’s genitals and thigh, remnants of his underwear and the bomb. They also had Adbulmutallab’s statements to passengers, flight crew and federal agents that he was on a mission from al-Qaida to blow up an American jetliner over U.S. soil.
Among the government’s trial witnesses was passenger Dimitrios Bessis, who was returning home to Georgia after visiting his ailing father in Greece.
Bessis was seated two rows behind Abdulmutallab and was one of the first passengers to try to put out the fire — with a Brooks Brothers hat passed down from his grandfather — caused by the malfunctioning bomb.
“I felt terror, fear, anger,” Bessis said, adding that he’s glad the trial is over.
“I know that he knows he was wrong,” Bessis added. “Maybe the good Lord did get into his heart.”