'Underwear bomber', accused over Christmas Day terror plot, goes on trial

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 24, said to have planned a failed suicide mission that could have killed everyone on board plane

Paul Harris tweets from court in Detroit – live updates

One of the biggest US terror cases of the post-9/11 era gets under way on Tuesday as the so-called "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab goes on trial in Detroit.

Abdulmutallab is charged with trying to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which had taken off for Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day 2009 and was over Michigan when he allegedly sought to trigger a bomb.

The Nigerian citizen, 24, is accused of wanting to carry out a suicide mission that could have killed everyone aboard the targeted plane had he successfully managed to detonate explosives smuggled aboard inside his underwear.

However the device failed to go off properly, resulting in serious burns injuries to Abdulmutallab's groin and legs but no explosion. He was then subdued by his fellow passengers and members of the crew. He now faces a host of criminal charges including attempted murder, attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, and conspiracy to commit terrorism. If found guilty he will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars.

The trial in Detroit has been eagerly awaited, mostly because Abdulmutallab last year dismissed his legal team and began conducting his own defence. It was set to begin with opening statements from both defence and prosecution that raised the prospect of Abdulmutallab personally explaining his actions and motivations around the alleged bombing attempt to the jury. But late last week he indicated that his court-appointed legal advisor, Anthony Chambers, would be reading the opening statement instead.

In previous appearances Abudlmutallab has shown varying attitudes at court hearings. At times he has been respectful of the court staff and asked frequent questions on his own behalf about legal matters. However, at others time he has claimed that slain terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki are alive and put a foot up on the desk in front of him. He also called the United States a "cancer" and requested to be allowed to wear a traditional Yemeni belt, including a ceremonial dagger, in court.

There are several areas where a defence of Abdulmutallab, the son of a wealthy Nigerian businessman, is likely to focus in the case.

Abdulmutallab was not read his Miranda rights before he was interviewed by FBI agents at the University of Michigan Hospital where he was under the grip of powerful painkillers as he was treated for his injuries. However, Judge Nancy Edmunds has ruled that statements Abdulmutallab made during those interviews are admissible in the trial. During the interrogation, Abdulmutallab told questioners he was trained by al-Qaida, had studied terrorism in Yemen and got his underwear device from a Saudi Arabian bomb-maker.

Another possible area of contention is the issue of videos showing an expert blowing up the type of PETN explosives used by Abdulmutallab in his underwear device. Chambers has previously argued that Abdulmutallab did not intend to bring down the plane and that the videos would be prejudicial to his defence.

A key area for the prosecution will be to show that there was a wider al-Qaida conspiracy at work. To prove that they will not only use Abdulmutallab's own statements but also a video of al-Qaida operatives discussing how he carried out the attack.

Last week the jury was selected in the case. A lengthy process worked through a large field of potential jurors and finally settled on three white men and nine women, two of whom are black and one of whom is from India. During the process one Nigerian woman was dismissed as a potential juror by the judge.

The process took longer than usual as it was complicated by the fact that more potential jurors than usual in criminal cases already felt that the accused was guilty.


Paul Harris in Detroit

The GuardianTramp

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