CHICAGO, Sept 12 – The young Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a packed transatlantic airliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009 in one of the most significant terror plots of the past decade heads to court Wednesday.
The trial of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — popularly known as the underwear bomber — is set to kick off days after the United States marked the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Abdulmutallab, 24, allegedly aimed to kill nearly 300 people aboard the Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
Passengers and crew members were able to restrain Abdulmutallab after the explosives stitched into his underwear failed to detonate and instead simply caused a small fire.
The botched Al-Qaeda plot triggered global alarm and led the United States to adopt stringent new screening and security measures, including controversial patdowns at airports and a massive expansion of the no-fly list.
The reputation of the nation’s intelligence services also took a hit because Abdulmutallab’s father, a prominent Nigerian banker, had warned the CIA about his son’s radicalization.
Republicans capitalized on the missteps and the revived fears to paint President Barack Obama as weak on terror, as well as to undermine his plans for shutting down Guantanamo Bay and prosecuting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other high-profile “enemy combatants” being held there in US civilian courts.
They are currently pushing legislation that would ensure that any terror suspects who are not US citizens be handed over to the military rather than be prosecuted by civil law enforcement and the courts.
“It would be not only a capitulation to the politics of fear but a dangerous expansion of the militarization of our legal system,” Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union said of the proposed law.
Abdulmutallab has complicated his case by firing his attorneys and insisting upon representing himself at trial.
“This is the American legal system on display for the world. That’s important,” said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University and former federal prosecutor.
“The judge has to ensure this trial is conducted fairly without letting it dissolve into a circus. That’s difficult to do because Mr Abdulmutallab has his own agenda.”
Zacarias Moussaoui, the only 9/11 plotter to be tried in a US court, also represented himself and tried to use his trial as a platform for Al-Qaeda propaganda.
Abdulmutallab has been calm and respectful at his pre-trial hearings, but gave a hint of his plans in a handwritten motion submitted last month asking to be released from custody because Muslims “should only be judged and ruled by the law of the Quran.”
Judge Nancy Edmunds, who has repeatedly urged Abdulmutallab to let a lawyer argue his case and appointed “standby counsel” to help him prepare, is expected to reject that motion at Wednesday’s pre-trial hearing.
Motions filed by his standby counsel may have a better chance of success.
Standby lawyer Anthony Chalmers has asked to move the trial outside of Michigan, to get access to evidence presented to the grand jury and to suppress statements Abdulmutallab made to investigators.
Chalmers argued that investigators took advantage of the fact that Abdulmutallab was “heavily sedated” after being treated for third-degree burns to coerce a confession even though doctors said he “could not be legally interviewed for four to six hours.”
He is also aiming to suppress statements made while at a federal prison because Abdulmutallab was told they would not used against him and were part of a plea negotiation.
Losing the confession would be a minor blow for prosecutors, said University of Detroit law professor Larry Dubin.
“The significance in terms of the ultimate outcome of the case is diminished by the availability of independent evidence,” he told AFP.
Meanwhile, prosecutors introduced a motion Friday to prevent Abdulmutallab from arguing at trial that his actions were caused by mental illness or “duress.”
They also sought permission to show jurors Abdulmutallab’s martyrdom video, along with a video of Osama bin Laden calling him a “hero,” a model of the bomb he allegedly wore and a video demonstrating the power of the explosives the failed bomber allegedly used.
Some 250 prospective jurors are set to fill out questionnaires ahead of jury selection on October 4. Opening statements are expected on October 11.