'Underwear bomber' trial begins as prosecutors lay out case

Witnesses recount moments of panic as trial of Nigerian man accused of attempting to blow up a passenger plane two years ago begins in Detroit

The trial of a Nigerian man dubbed the "underwear bomber" got underway Tuesday, nearly two years after he allegedly tried to blow up a passenger plane with a device concealed in his clothing.

Flight 253 had been flying from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan, on Christmas Day, 2009, when Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab's bomb failed to detonate properly, prosecutors said, resulting only in serious burns to the accused. He was then rapidly subdued by fellow passengers and crew as the fire was put out.

Now, after much anticipation, Abdulmutallab's case has finally begun in a downtown Detroit federal court building, ringed by extra security.

The trial is one of the biggest terror cases to be held in America since 9/11 but so far has had a slightly surreal element, as Abdulmutallab last year dismissed his legal team and started conducting his own defence.

That element of the unexpected continued in the trial's opening session as Abdulmutallab appeared in a colourful African-style gown and then – after an hour-long talk with his court-appointed legal adviser – declined to give any opening statement. He then watched as head prosecutor Jonathan Tukel launched a 90-minute presentation of the case against him.

Tukel, chief of the National Security Unit in the local attorney's office, presented a detailed outline of the case against Abdulmutallab.

He described numerous witnesses slated to testify who helped wrestle a burning Abdulmutallab to the floor and escort him to business class as pilots brought the plane down in an emergency landing. Tukel forensically reconstructed the few minutes of panic as the fire was put out before detailing numerous statements that Abdulmutallab made to fellow passengers, FBI interrogators and staff at the hospital where he admitted he had been trying to blow the plane out of the sky. "That was martyrdom," Abdulmutallab told one nurse.

In a chat with a customs official Abdulmutallab also admitted he had wanted the bomb to "bring down the plane" and that he had acquired it in Yemen. He repeated that story in far more detail to a pair of FBI interrogators who grilled him for 50 minutes in hospital. He detailed meeting a militant in Yemen called "Abu Tarak" who came up with the idea for the plot and gave him the underwear bomb made by a Saudi terrorist.

Tukel said that Abdulmutallab painted a picture of a committed terrorist who had been born to a wealthy family in Nigeria, gone to good schools but had been determined to become an Islamic radical and so travelled to Yemen. "He wanted jihad and he sought it out and he found it," Tukel said.

Tukel's opening statement also mentioned a screenshot of Abdulmutallab in a martyrdom video. Sitting with an AK-47 rifle propped up against a wall behind him, he appeared in a video that was part of a much longer al-Qaida film. Abdulmutallab's segment was just 34 seconds long but in it he stated: "My Muslim brothers in the Arabian peninsula, you have to answer the call of jihad because the enemy is in your land along with their Jewish and Christian armies."

Tukel said there was no doubt what sort of mission the accused was on: a suicide mission. "His mission was for the al-Qaida terrorist organisation... his only reason for being on Flight 253 was to kill all the other passengers and himself," Tukel said and he added: "He thought that he would end up in heaven because he thought he would be a martyr."

Throughout the testimony Abdulmutallab watched impassively, barely moving and often holding his hands clasped beneath his chin. That was in marked contrast to previous court appearances where he sometimes shouted remarks, once saying that Osama bin Laden was still alive and that America was a "cancer". He also once asked to wear a ceremonial Yemeni belt complete with dagger to court; a request that was unsurprisingly denied.

But this morning's session was not without its moments of levity. After Tukel's opening statement ended and Abdulmutallab and his lawyer reserved their right to respond later, the first witness was called.

He was Mike Zantow, a fellow passenger on Flight 253, who described watching the accused put a blanket over his head after a long trip to the bathroom. There was then a loud pop and Zantow heard the man seated next to Abdulmutallab shout: "Hey dude, your pants are on fire!"

Zantow vividly detailed how Abdulmutallab had no reaction to being on fire as people hauled him out of his seat and put out the flames. He also described the moment he first saw the device that could have killed him along with everyone else on board. "Underwear resembling something that I hadn't seen before… like adult pampers a little."


Paul Harris in Detroit

The GuardianTramp

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