Admitted underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was sentenced on Thursday to spend the rest of his life in prison for his attempt to destroy a commercial jetliner in flight on Christmas Day 2009.
Mr. Abdulmutallab faced a combination of four consecutive life sentences as well as an additional life sentence plus 60 years in prison after pleading guilty in October to all eight charges related to the Al Qaeda bomb plot.
“The defendant has never expressed any doubt or regret or remorse about his mission,” the judge said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “To the contrary, he sees that mission as divinely inspired and a continuing mission.”
The judge told Abdulmutallab that she could not control his future intentions and motives, but she could control any opportunity for him to attempt another suicide attack.
Speaking in federal court in Detroit, Abdulmutallab was defiant. “Today is a day of victory,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “Mujahideen are proud to kill in the name of God. And that is exactly what God told us to do in the Koran.”
During the hearing, prosecutors played a video tape prepared by the FBI laboratory showing the potential explosive force of Abdulmutallab’s device. During the demonstration, Abdulmutallab twice called out: “Allahu akbar,” which is Arabic for God is great.
The sentence is similar to the punishment given to admitted shoe bomber Richard Reid, who received three life sentences for his attempt in 2001 to detonate explosives in his shoes during a transatlantic flight to the US. That bomb also did not detonate.
Federal prosecutors had argued that Abdulmutallab represented a continuing threat to US citizens and was likely to attempt another suicide attack should the opportunity present itself. They said he should receive the maximum sentence – life in prison.
A court-appointed defense lawyer, Anthony Chambers of Detroit, said in court filings that life in prison was an excessive punishment given that no one but Adbulmutallab was injured during his failed bombing attempt. Mr. Chambers said sentencing Abdulmutallab to life in prison would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Judge Edmunds rejected the argument.
In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder praised the outcome of the case. He and other Obama administration officials had been criticized by Republicans for not turning Abdulmutallab over to the military for harsh interrogation.
The attorney general defended the FBI’s actions. “Today’s sentence once again underscores the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in both incapacitating terrorists and gathering valuable intelligence from them,” he said.
“Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab is a remorseless terrorist who believes it is his duty to kill Americans,” Holder said. “For attempting to take the lives of 289 innocent people, he has been appropriately sentenced to serve every day of the reset of his life in prison.”
Documents filed by government lawyers prior to the sentencing hearing offer the most detailed account yet of how Abdulmutallab went from his life as the well-educated son of a wealthy Nigerian banker to a willing participant in an Al Qaeda-endorsed martyrdom mission against the US.
Most of the information was provided by Abdulmutallab during a series of debriefings conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation from January to April 2010.
The information is significant because it suggests that American-born cleric Anwar Awlaki played a substantial part in the airline bomb plot. Mr. Awlaki was killed in Yemen last year in a US drone attack.
It is unclear to what extent the FBI or other government agencies sought to verify the accuracy of Abdulmutallab’s claims to the FBI agents.
Based on the government’s memo, this is what he told federal agents:
For many years Abdulmutallab had been following the confrontation between the US and various militant Islamic groups. He was particularly drawn to the Internet writings and lectures of Awlaki, who had become active in a Yemen-based group called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Awlaki sought to inspire Muslims to rise up and defend their religion. It is a message that resonated with many young Muslims, including Abdulmutallab. In August 2009, the young Nigerian traveled to Yemen to try to meet Awlaki. He visited mosques and asked how he could contact the cleric, according the government’s memo.
Eventually, Abdulmutallab received a message from Awlaki and spoke to him briefly on the phone. Abdulmutallab was instructed to send him a written statement explaining why he wanted to become involved in jihad, government documents say.
After receiving the statement, Awlaki sent a car and driver to transport Abdulmutallab from the Yemeni capital, Sana, through the desert to Awlaki’s home. Abdulmutallab spent three days in Awlaki’s house, discussing martyrdom and jihad, the documents say.
“Defendant understood that Awlaki used these discussions to evaluate defendant’s commitment to and suitability for jihad,” the government’s memo says. “Throughout, defendant expressed his willingness to become involved in any mission chosen for him, including martyrdom – and by the end of his stay, Awlaki had accepted defendant for a martyrdom mission.”
Abdulmutallab was then taken to a different house where he met Ibrahim Al-Asiri, whom he described to agents as a bomb maker. The government memo says that Al-Asiri and Awlaki discussed a bomb plot and that Awlaki gave final approval for that plot.
The Nigerian then received two weeks of weapons training and religious instruction concerning jihad at an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula camp.
Al-Asiri prepared an explosive device sewn into a pair of underwear. He trained Abdulmutallab in how to use a plunger to inject a chemical into the PETN explosive and cause detonation, the documents say.
In addition to approving the mission, Awlaki helped Abdulmutallab write a “martyrdom statement” to recite during a five-minute film that would be broadcast after his successful terror attack. A professional film crew worked on the project for two to three days, documents say.
Abdulmutallab was permitted a degree of operational flexibility. He could choose the date of the attack and which flight. But Awlaki insisted that the attack must take place on a US airliner flying over the United States, the government’s memo says.
“Awlaki’s last instructions to him were to wait until the airline was over the United States and then to take the plane down,” the memo says.
The plot did not go as planned. When Abdulmutallab pressed the plunger to detonate the device, the device caught fire but did not detonate. Other passengers subdued Abdulmutallab and put out the fire.