DETROIT, Michigan — A young Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a packed airliner bound for the United States on Christmas Day 2009 returns to court Monday to stand trial for one of Al-Qaeda’s biggest plots.
Jurors are to be selected this week before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, popularly known as the underwear bomber, contests charges that he tried to kill nearly 300 people aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
The trial will be closely watched as it comes three days after the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaqi in a US air strike in Yemen. American intelligence officials have repeatedly linked US-born cleric Awlaqi to the Christmas Day operation.
The prospects of court room drama are high as Abdulmutallab, 24, fired his attorneys and has insisted on representing himself. Finding jurors who say they are able to consider the evidence impartially could also prove difficult.
The Christmas Day plot was foiled when explosives stitched into Abdulmutallab’s underwear failed to detonate and only caused a small fire, allowing passengers and crew members to restrain him.
The botched operation 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 growing Islamic radicalization.
Republicans capitalized on the missteps and the revived security fears to paint President Barack Obama as weak on terror, as well as to undermine his plans for shutting down Guantanamo Bay and prosecuting self-confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other high-profile “enemy combatants” held there in US civilian courts.
Judge Nancy Edmunds has repeatedly urged Abdulmutallab to let a lawyer argue his case and appointed “standby counsel” to help him prepare.
While he accepted some help, Abdulmutallab insists he will make his own opening statement and will question witnesses during what is expected to be a weeks-long 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,” he said in a recent interview. “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 was calm and respectful at the bulk of his pre-trial hearings, but as the case moved closer to trial he became disruptive and unruly.
It started in August with a series of handwritten motions in which he asked to be released from custody because Muslims “should only be judged and ruled by the law of the Koran” and accused guards at the federal detention center in Milan, Michigan of using “excessive force” during Ramadan.
He shouted out “Osama’s alive”, referring to slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and complained to reporters about his “prison clothes” as he walked into court for a September 15 pre-trial hearing.
He then refused to stand when the court was called to attention and even propped his feet up on the defense table while watching prospective jurors fill out questionnaires ahead of the formal jury selection.
The prospective jurors — who were in another room — witnessed his antics on the two-way video feed but it was unclear if they could hear him holler “jihad” when Judge Edmunds briefed them about his alleged crimes.
At a pre-trial hearing Tuesday, Edmunds dismissed Abdulmutallab’s objection to the prosecution’s request to show jurors his martyrdom video and a video demonstration of the power of the explosives.
Jurors will also be shown a reproduction of the underwear that Abdulmutallab allegedly wore to hide the explosives and are expected to hear testimony from the plane’s passengers and crew.
Opening statements are expected on October 11.