The trial of a young Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a packed US-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 in one of Al-Qaeda’s biggest failed plots is due to begin with opening statements Tuesday.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, popularly known as the “underwear bomber,” is contesting 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 two weeks after the killing of Al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaqi in a US air strike in Yemen. US intelligence officials have repeatedly linked the US-born cleric to the Christmas Day plot.
Abdulmutallab, 24, has fired his attorneys and insisted on representing himself, though Judge Nancy Edmunds has repeatedly urged him to let a lawyer argue his case and appointed “standby counsel” to help him prepare.
On Friday, he agreed to let lawyer Anthony Chambers deliver opening statements on his behalf, but Abdulmutallab is nonetheless expected to attempt to use the trial as a platform for espousing his radical views.
Jury selection, which took three days, was marked by incendiary outbursts by Abdulmutallab, including a pledge that Islamic militants will wipe out “the cancer US” and his praise for al-Awlaqi.
He also plans to call for the testimony of a passenger aboard the flight, Kurt Haskell, who says that he saw a “sharply dressed” man escort Abdulmutallab “around security” without a passport.
Haskell insists on his blog that Abdulmutallab was handed a “fake bomb” in order to “stage a false terrorist attack” so the US government could justify its costly and increasingly unpopular wars.
The December 25 plot was foiled when explosives allegedly 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 pat downs 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.
The botched plot also cast a spotlight on Yemen, where Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is increasingly seen by US officials as a threat comparable to the terror network’s core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan.