Underwear bomber trial: Will it shed light on American cleric killed in Yemen?

The trial of accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is set to begin Tuesday. Will testimony support Obama's contention that slain cleric Anwar al-Awlaki 'directed' the failed plot?

Illustration/Jerry Lemenu/AP
Underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, appears in US District Judge Nancy Edmunds' courtroom in Detroit, Oct. 4. The trial of accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is set to begin Tuesday.

Accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is set to stand trial Tuesday on charges that he attempted to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight with 281 passengers and 11 crew members onboard as part of an Al Qaeda terror plot on Christmas Day 2009.

The bomb, sewn into a pair of underwear, failed to properly detonate. Mr. Abdulmutallab was badly burned in the attempt and was subdued by passengers and crew before being turned over to federal authorities.

The high-profile terror trial in federal court in Detroit will be closely followed as part of an ongoing debate over the use of civilian courts rather than military commissions to prosecute suspected terrorists.

The bomb plot exposed significant vulnerabilities in airport security screenings and highlighted the increasing potency of Al Qaeda spin-off groups, such as Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusula.

The 24-year-old Nigerian student is representing himself with the help of an appointed stand-by counsel. The expected month-long trial will be heard by a jury of nine women and three men.

Abdulmutallab is accused in an eight-count indictment of conspiring with Al Qaeda to conduct a terrorist-martyrdom mission by using explosives to destroy a commercial jetliner and murder everyone on board. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

He has pleaded not guilty.

His trial begins less than two weeks after US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone attack in Yemen. In a statement afterward, President Obama said Mr. Awlaki “directed” the failed Christmas Day bombing, but the full extent of his involvement remains unclear.

Shortly after the failed bombing, Abdulmutallab told FBI agents that he had been inspired to join Al Qaeda’s jihad against the US after visiting websites featuring Awlaki’s statements and sermons.

Court papers filed in Abdulmutallab’s case do not detail a larger role for Awlaki in the plot. But live testimony might offer new information supporting the president’s assertion that Awlaki directed the attempted terror attack.

Abdulmutallab's path

According to federal prosecutors, Abdulmutallab left his native Nigeria and traveled to Yemen in August 2009 where he made contact with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He was allegedly trained to conduct a suicide attack against the US mainland on behalf of Al Qaeda.

His instruction included how to detonate a small bomb containing highly concentrated explosives, PETN and TATP.

Prosecutors say he transported the bomb from Yemen, through several countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe by wearing the device in his underpants. He eventually boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam for a non-stop trip to Detroit.

As the plane prepared to land, Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom. When he returned to his seat he pulled a blanket over himself. Prosecutors say that’s when he tried to detonate the bomb. The device caught fire but did not explode.

The Obama administration was criticized for its initial handling of the case. Some observers said Abdulmutallab was advised too quickly of his right to remain silent and his right to obtain the advice of counsel. These analysts believe he should have been immediately designated an enemy combatant and transferred to military custody for harsh interrogations.

Others say federal agents were able to quickly obtain significant information without jeopardizing his eventual prosecution in federal court.

According to court documents, Abdulmutallab provided FBI agents with details about the alleged bombing plot during a 50-minute interview prior to his being advised of his Miranda rights. Later, after he was given the Miranda warnings, he stopped talking.

Abdulmutallab and his stand-by lawyer, Anthony Chambers, argued in pretrial motions that information from the 50-minute interview should not be used as evidence against the defendant at trial because it was obtained in violation of his Miranda rights.

They said the statements were involuntary and made when Abdulmutallab lacked a clear state of mind. He was being treated for extensive burns and had been administered 300 micrograms of the painkiller fentanyl.

Two rulings on Miranda

US District Judge Nancy Edmunds rejected the motion, ruling that the FBI agents were “fully justified” in questioning Abdulmutallab before advising him of his rights. She found the actions fell within a public safety exception to the Miranda rule.

“The agents feared that there could be additional, imminent aircraft attacks in the United States and elsewhere in the world,” she wrote in her order.

She noted that one of the agents and a nurse at the hospital testified at an earlier hearing that Abdulmutallab appeared alert and lucid. “Defendant told [the agent] that he was not in pain, that he felt fine, and that he understood that the agents needed to ask him some questions,” she wrote.

After obtaining the favorable Miranda ruling, prosecutors asked the judge to grant them another significant advantage at the trial. They wanted Judge Edmunds to bar Abdulmutallab and Mr. Chambers from questioning the FBI agents about whether they advised the defendant of his Miranda rights before he made his statements.

The government’s motion acknowledges that it is “common” for federal agents to be asked and to answer such questions during a trial. “In general, such questions are appropriate and non-ojectionable,” the prosecutors wrote. “In the present case, however, such questions are objectionable.”

“If defendant is allowed at trial to examine agents as to whether he was advised of such rights, the jury will be misled into thinking that agents did something impermissible by not so advising him,” the motion says.

Judge Edmunds granted the motion.

The judge’s order limits the ability of the jury to understand the totality of the circumstances surrounding the incriminating statements Abdulmutallab made to FBI agents. Part of each juror’s job is to decide how much weight to give to every piece of evidence or testimony introduced at a trial.

Incriminating statement at hospital

Abdulmutallab’s statement to the agents wasn’t his only incriminating comment.

When Abdulmutallab was admitted into the hospital with severe burns after the failed bombing, he was asked as part of the routine admissions process whether he ever had thoughts of hurting himself or others.

According to court documents, he told the nurse, no. The nurse responded by asking whether his attempted bombing earlier that day was an attempt to hurt himself or others.

No, he reportedly told the nurse, that was “martyrdom.”

Prosecutors say they will call Simon Perry, a professor at Israel’s Hebrew University, to testify about the motives and practices of individuals who attempt suicide bombings.

Professor Perry is expected to discuss the findings of his study of 30 would-be suicide bombers whose attempts at martyrdom failed.

The government is also expected to call a bomb expert who tried to recreate Abdulmutallab’s device and then videotaped the destructive force of the bomb when properly detonated.

According to court records, the underwear bomb consisted of two types of high explosives. TATP (triacetone triperoxide) was used as an accelerant to create enough heat to ignite the main charge – a quantity of PETN (pentacrythritol tetranitrate).

Instead of wires, switches, batteries, and other metal that might have been detected by airport security, the device was designed to be triggered by a syringe mixing ethylene glycol and potassium permanganate. The combination produces fire that was intended to start a chain reaction, igniting first the TATP and then the PETN.

Officials recovered 76 grams of PETN in the aftermath of the attempted bombing, but the expert believes Abdulmutallab’s bomb contained 200 grams of PETN prior to the attempted detonation.

The government’s bomb expert created two devices, one with 76 grams of PETN, the other with 200 grams. The videos show the detonations at full speed, 15 percent speed, and slow motion.

In a pretrial motion, the defense “vehemently” objected.

“Presenting the jury with a model of the bomb is unfairly prejudicial, and is only meant to inflame the jury and appeal to the jurors’ emotions,” Mr. Chambers wrote in a motion asking Judge Edmunds to exclude the testimony and video.

Chambers said the government had no knowledge of how much PETN was in Abdulmutallab’s bomb, and could not credibly argue his bomb would have the same explosive force.

Judge Edmunds ruled that the expert could show the video of both the 76-gram bomb’s detonation, as well as the 200-gram device.

An Al Qaeda video

The government is also expected to show an Al Qaeda-produced video “America and the Final Trap,” which features a segment praising the attempted Christmas Day bombing.

The video includes a purported message from Osama Bin Laden voiced over the image of an aircraft with Abdulmutallab’s photograph superimposed over it. Bin Laden said Al Qaeda was sending a message to the US “through the airplane of the hero Umar Al-Farouk.”

Bin Laden said the message was: “America will not dream of security until we live it as a reality in Palestine.”

The video also contains an excerpt from what appears to be a martyrdom video created before he left Yemen, in which Abdulmutallab explains his reasons for undertaking the bombing mission. An Al Qaeda flag and an AK-47 assault rifle are visible behind him.

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