US Marshals Service/REUTERS/File
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is shown in this booking photograph released by the U.S. Marshals Service in this 2009 file photo. A federal judge is set to decide on February 16 if the Nigerian man who pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit in 2009 will spend the rest of his life in prison.

US to seek life sentence for underwear bomber, saying he remains a threat

The sentencing hearing for the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, takes place Thursday. Prosecutors argue that he remains willing to carry out another martyrdom mission.

Admitted Al Qaeda underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, poses a “significant, ongoing threat to the safety of American citizens everywhere” and should be held in prison for the rest of his life, prosecutors will argue at his sentencing hearing on Thursday.

In briefs filed in federal court in Detroit, the government says that despite Mr. Abudulmutallab’s decision to plead guilty to all charges on Oct. 12, he remains willing – if given the chance – to carry out another martyrdom mission on behalf of Al Qaeda.

“The Court has no ability to control defendant’s motivation,” prosecutors said in their brief. “However, the Court can control defendant’s opportunity to act on those intentions.”

Government lawyers are urging US District Judge Nancy Edmunds to impose the maximum sentence for each of eight charges to ensure that Abdulmutallab “never again has the opportunity to carry out the type of mission he still is highly motivated to conduct.”

Abdulmutallab was arrested on Christmas Day 2009 after he attempted to detonate an explosive device while aboard Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. The explosive device, sewn into the lining of his underwear, caught fire but did not detonate. There were 289 individuals on board the aircraft.

Abdulmutallab later told FBI agents his martyrdom mission was inspired by American-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and that he was trained and equipped by Yemen-based members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The government’s warning to the judge is based on an assessment of Abdulmutallab conducted by Israeli criminologist Simon Perry, who has studied Muslim suicide bombers.

“I believe there is high probability that given the opportunity, he would try once again to commit an act of martyrdom, endangering his and other innocent lives,” Dr. Perry said in a 22-page report filed with the court.

“Even the death of Awlaki, his source of religious guidance concerning martyrdom, did not change his state of mind,” Perry said. “If anything, it has made him more determined.”

Awlaki was among several members of Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula killed last year in a US drone attack in Yemen.

Abdulmutallab is representing himself in the case, but he is also being assisted by a court-appointed stand-by attorney.

The stand-by counsel, Anthony Chambers of Detroit, argued in a brief to Judge Edmunds that the government’s request for a mandatory life sentence is excessive and grossly disproportionate to Abdulmutallab’s conduct. He stressed that no one other than Abdulmutallab was seriously injured.

He said a mandatory life sentence under those circumstances would violate the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment.

“By pleading guilty the defendant fully accepted responsibility for his actions,” Mr. Chambers wrote. “Considering the fact that none of the alleged victims suffered any serious bodily injury, a life sentence would be a misinterpretation of justice.”

It is unclear what the defense attorney meant by referring to the other passengers on the targeted aircraft as “alleged” victims.

Prosecutors disputed the suggestion that the crime caused no “injury.” Even an unsuccessful terrorist attack fosters fear, they said.

“In addition, the enormous cost of the augmented security measures adopted as a direct result of defendant’s unsuccessful terrorist attack are borne by the American public at large in both increased cost, inconvenience, and wasted time at airports,” prosecutors said.

Abdulmutallab potentially faces up to four consecutive life sentences followed by an additional term of life in prison plus 60 years. Two of the eight charges to which he pled guilty carry mandatory life sentences.

Abdulmutallab “is an unrepentant would-be mass murderer, who views his crimes as divinely inspired and blessed, and who views himself as under a continuing obligation to carry out such crimes,” the prosecutors said.  

At one point, Abdulmutallab told the FBI: “I attempted to use an explosive device which in the US law is a weapon of mass destruction, which I call a blessed weapon.”

Perry, the Israeli expert, says that based on Abdulmutallab’s statements to the FBI he is still likely to try to carry out a future martyrdom mission if given a chance.

AbdulMutallab “claims that the fact that the bomb did not explode was merely evidence that it was not his time to die. He did not believe that he had failed to deploy the device properly,” Perry said. Instead, Abdulmutallab “believes that the outcome of his mission was in God’s hands.”

Perry said Abdulmutallab believes that God decided that he was not pure enough for martyrdom and that he must wait patiently for God’s purification.

“The failed martyrdom mission, in his mind, is no more than a possible test of patience imposed on him by God,” Perry said. “One can interpret this rhetoric as meaning that he has not given up on aspirations to martyrdom.”

Perry said purification is an important component of martyrdom missions. He noted that shortly before the Northwest airliner crossed from Canada into US airspace, Abdulmutallab went to the restroom where he washed his face, brushed his teeth, and applied cologne.

After returning to his seat, he said a final prayer and pushed a plunger to detonate the device. Perry wrote: “Through these acts (prior to pushing the plunger) Abdulmutallab prepared himself for martyrdom by purifying himself – body and soul.”

The explosive device, constructed of an estimated 200 grams of PETN, caught fire but failed to detonate. 

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