The trial of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the al-Qaeda suspect who allegedly tried to bring down a Northwest Airlines plane with a bomb hidden in his underwear in December 2009, will open Tuesday in Detroit amid some uncertainty about whether the Nigerian, who is representing himself, will offer a vigorous defense or attempt to use the courtroom as a political stage.
He had indicated that he would deliver his own opening statement to the jury, but late last week he delegated that critical task to his court-appointed, standby attorney.
His behavior during pretrial appearances and jury selection suggests some penchant for the theatrical. He asked U.S. District Court Judge Nancy G. Edmunds whether he could wear a traditional Yemeni belt with a dagger and, in a handwritten motion, asked to be judged by the “law of the Koran.” And when not propping his feet up on the defense table, he has railed against the United States.
Abdulmutallab has pleaded not guilty to eight charges, including attempted murder and conspiracy to commit terrorism. He is accused of hiding a bomb that had no mechanical parts, allowing him to successfully beat airport security in Amsterdam, where he boarded the flight.
Seven minutes before the plane arrived in Detroit, passengers heard a loud pop like a firecracker, and smoke and fire started coming from Abdulmutallab’s lap. He was subdued by passengers and flight attendants, who used a fire extinguisher to put out the fire. The near miss, along with the ingenuity of the device, prompted the introduction of full-body scanners at U.S. airports.
Obama administration officials said Awlaki, the radical cleric killed by a CIA drone strike late last month, had a role in the plot to detonate the bomb when the plane was over the United States.
Abdulmutallab, who fired his attorneys, will be advised in court by standby attorney Anthony T. Chambers but can still question witnesses and deliver the closing statement to the jury.
“You represent yourself in trial if you don’t care at all about the outcome, and that’s where he finds himself,” said Edward MacMahon Jr., who was the court-appointed lead counsel for the convicted Sept. 11, 2001, conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. “He sees it as one last moment in the sun before he disappears into a life sentence.”
The trial, expected to last three or four weeks, may rekindle debates about when authorities advised Abdulmutallab of his right to an attorney and whether his case should have been handled as a criminal matter.
Some Republican critics of the Obama administration’s terrorism policies said Abdulmutallab should have been held in military custody as an enemy combatant and shorn of any right to an attorney or a civilian trial. They said Abdulmutallab could have been interrogated on a continuous basis to maximize the amount of actionable intelligence obtained from him before being brought before a military tribunal.
“There was no significant interrogation of him. They didn’t bring out the high-value interrogation group,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “To me, he is definitely an enemy combatant and he should be tried in a military system. Conceptually, I don’t see the difference between him being captured out of the country or in the country. He is an enemy combatant, and we are at war.”
The Obama administration argues that the federal courts are the appropriate forum for suspects arrested inside the United States and that the FBI was able to interview Abdulmutallab for 50 minutes, securing the information it needed before advising him of his right to an attorney.
FBI agents questioned Abdulmutallab at the University of Michigan hospital, where he was given a painkiller while his third-degree burns were scrubbed. Abdulmutallab was asked about his international travel, including his time in Yemen, about the explosive device, about the bomb-maker and whether any other attacks had been coordinated with his failed attempt.
The Nigerian spoke freely and provided details about his mission and training, and he said he had intended to explode the bomb, killing everyone on board, according to court papers.
Chambers has suggested in court papers that it would have been “impossible” for the device to destroy the plane. The government plans to explain the bomb’s construction and explosive power to the jury in detail to counter that argument.
Attempts to reach Chambers directly were unsuccessful.
Last month, Edmunds admitted into court all of the statements Abdulmutallab made before he was given a Miranda warning, rejecting a defense motion that they should be suppressed. Abdulmutallab argued that, because of his medical condition, his statements were involuntary and that he should have been advised of his rights at the start of the interview.
“The agents limited their questioning to approximately 50 minutes, at which time they had sufficient information to address the threat to public safety,” said Edmunds, ruling that the questioning fell within the public-safety exception to Miranda.
Edmunds’s ruling was the first in a terrorism case since Sept. 11, 2001, to address the Miranda public safety exception. Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to explode a car bomb in Times Square, also was not immediately advised of his rights, but because he pleaded guilty, that decision was not litigated.
“It’s not surprising to have that exception used for terrorism,” said James J. Tomkovicz, a professor of law at the University of Iowa. “It isn’t a very demanding showing that there is a sufficiently serious threat to the public safety and that the person being interrogated may have information. . . . The logic is actually if we give him Miranda warnings he might not say anything.”
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.