DETROIT — A young Nigerian on a terrorist mission for al-Qaida prayed, washed and put on perfume moments before trying to detonate a bomb in his underwear to bring down an international jetliner on Christmas 2009, a prosecutor told jurors as the man’s trial opened today.
Virtually everyone aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 had holiday plans, but Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab believed his calling was martyrdom, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel said.
In the plane’s bathroom, “he was engaging in rituals. He was preparing to die and enter heaven,” Tukel said. “He purified himself. He washed. He brushed his teeth. He put on perfume. He was praying and perfuming himself to get ready to die.”
After returning to his seat, Abdulmutallab pushed a small plunger on the chemical bomb in his underwear, an action that produced a “pop,” the prosecutor told jurors.
The bomb didn’t work as planned but Abdulmutallab was engulfed in flames, said Tukel, who displayed the flight’s seating chart on a screen to show jurors where things happened on the plane.
Opening statements began after an unexplained 70-minute recess requested by Abdulmutallab and his attorney, Anthony Chambers, shortly after they entered the courtroom. Abdulmutallab, 24, came to court wearing a dashiki, an African gown, and black skull cap and was silent as he settled at the defense table.
Before the recess, Chambers asked the judge to ban the word “bomb” or “explosive” from being used in the trial until final arguments, saying it’s up to the jury to decide what caused the smoke and fire.
“I’m going to deny that motion. … It makes no sense whatsoever,” U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds said.
Edmunds also told Detroit-area attorney Kurt Haskell to leave the courtroom before opening statements began because he could be called as a defense witness. He was a passenger on Flight 253 and believes the U.S. government conspired with Abdulmutallab to outfit him with a fake bomb.
Abdulmutallab is acting as his own lawyer. But he is relying on Chambers to handle the minute-by-minute work in the courtroom.
Chambers will grill most of the government’s witnesses and persuaded Abdulmutallab to let him give the opening defense statement later Tuesday. The result is likely to be a more focused defense and not a wild justification for trying to bring down the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight.
Abdulmutallab has written a few court filings in his own hand, including a request to be judged by Islamic law. He has at times appeared agitated in court, declaring that Osama bin Laden and a radical Muslim cleric recently killed by the U.S. are alive. He also has objected to trial testimony from experts who will talk about al-Qaida and martyrdom.
The government’s evidence is stacked high. Abdulmutallab was badly burned in a plane full of witnesses. The government says he told FBI agents he was working for al Qaida and directed by Anwar al-Alwaki, a radical, American-born Muslim cleric recently killed by the U.S. in Yemen. There are photos of his scorched shorts as well as video of Abdulmutallab explaining his suicide mission before departing for the U.S.
Chambers, 50, came to the case a year ago after Abdulmutallab fired a four-member team from the Detroit Federal Defender Office and said he would represent himself. It’s common for a federal judge to appoint a lawyer as “standby counsel” to assist someone who chooses to go alone.
But Chambers, an attorney for 26 years, has done more than stand by. He filed detailed challenges to the government’s use of Abdulmutallab’s incriminating statements made from a hospital bed and without Miranda warnings. He also thoroughly cross-examined a pharmacologist who testified during a pretrial hearing about the effects of a painkiller given to Abdulmutallab for his burns before the FBI interview.
“The goal of the court is to get the best representation so no one down the road can claim (Abdulmutallab) was railroaded or forced to assume a responsibility he could not handle,” explained David Steingold, a longtime Detroit defense attorney.