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'Underwear bomber' pleads guilty in airline plot

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, accused of trying to blow up a plane headed to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, pleads guilty to eight felonies and faces life in prison.

October 13, 2011|By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
  • Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty to eight felony counts in U.S. District Court in Detroit against the advice of a lawyer assisting him.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty to eight felony counts in U.S.… (AFP/Getty Images )

The terrorism trial of the man accused of trying to use a bomb hidden in his underwear to blow up an international flight to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009 has ended with the Nigerian defendant accepting responsibility but justifying his failed attack on the United States.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab abruptly pleaded guilty to eight felonies Wednesday, halting the trial of the confessed Al Qaeda operative whose attack on a jetliner carrying 279 passengers and 11 crew members embarrassed the Obama administration and led to heightened security at many airports. He faces life in prison at his scheduled sentencing Jan. 12, spokesman Rod Hansen for the U.S. District Court in Detroit said in a telephone interview.

As part of the legal process, Abdulmutallab assured U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds that he was competent to enter a guilty plea, Hansen said. In his statements to the judge, Abdulmutallab answered each count of the federal charges with a long commentary, explaining what he did and trying to justify the planned attack, which he did not consider to be a violation of the Koran, Hansen added.

"The United States should be warned that if they continue to persist and promote the blasphemy of Muhammad and the prophets," Abdulmutallab said, according to the Associated Press, "the United States should await a great calamity that will befall them through the hands of the mujahedin soon."

"If you laugh with us now, we will laugh with you later on the day of judgment," he said.

The guilty plea came after a jury was selected last week and the trial had moved into its second day. Abdulmutallab had tried from the beginning to make the proceedings a political trial.

Outside the courthouse, attorney Anthony Chambers, who assisted Abdulmutallab, said the guilty plea came against the lawyer's advice. "We wanted to continue the trial, but we respect his decision," Chambers told reporters.

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. praised the outcome as an example of how U.S. justice and the courts deal with terrorism. The issue of how to deal with suspected terrorists, whether in civilian or military venues, has been an ongoing political controversy since President Obama took office in 2009.

"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," Holder said in a statement. "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."

Abdulmutallab, then 23, boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in the Netherlands on Christmas Day in 2009 en route to Michigan. Plastic explosives were hidden in his underwear.

Witnesses said he had gone into a bathroom, then returned to his seat, covering himself with a blanket. He apparently tried to detonate the explosives as the plane was approaching Detroit, but the device failed to explode properly. Passengers seized Abdulmutallab, who was burned in the incident.

Abdulmutallab later told government investigators that he was working for an Al Qaeda group run by Anwar Awlaki, an American Muslim cleric recently killed in Yemen by U.S. and Yemeni forces. Awlaki's alleged role in the airline incident was one of the rationales for the U.S. attack on the cleric, who was never convicted in a U.S. court.

After Abdulmutallab was apprehended, the Obama administration initially argued that the airport security "system had worked." But days later, top officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, faced questions over whether Abdulmutallab should have been prevented from boarding the flight in Amsterdam.

Abdulmutallab's family had told CIA officers in Nigeria that they believed he was coming under the influence of radical Islamist clerics. Abdulmutallab's name was entered into a database of more than 500,000 suspected terrorists, but was never investigated further and never made it to the so-called no-fly list.

There were also questions about how Abdulmutallab was able to bring the explosives on the plane. That has led to an increase in airport security.

michael.muskal@latimes.com

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