Al-Qaida 'underwear bomber' stuns Detroit court by changing plea to guilty

Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab decides to plead guilty to conspiring to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009

With a last, defiant shout of "Allah Akbar", the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, left a Detroit courtroom on Wednesday after pleading guilty to conspiring to blow up a plane on Christmas Day 2009.

The Nigerian citizen, 25, stunned the court with his sudden plea reversal after prosecutors were settling down to present a mountain of physical evidence against him that was expected to last up to a month.

But instead, after a brief recess, Abdulmutallab suddenly decided to plead guilty to smuggling a deadly bomb hidden inside specially constructed underwear on board Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Abdulmutallab intended to blow the plane out of the sky over America but it failed to go off. Instead, he suffered severe burns to his crotch and was subdued by fellow passengers and airline crew.

Pleading guilty dodged a lengthy terror trial, but also allowed Abdulmutallab the opportunity to address the court. Dressed in a black jacket and a brown tunic, he gave out a five-minute statement in which he explained that he wanted to carry out the attack to protest against US and Israeli policy towards Muslims.

"I intentionally carried an explosive device on Flight 253 for the US tyranny and oppression of Muslims," he told the courtroom. He described the high explosives packed into his underpants – which could have brought down the plane and killed everyone onboard – as "a blessed weapon to save the lives of innocent Muslims."

Anyone hoping for a deeper insight into Abdulmutallab's mindset and an explanation of why a young educated man from a wealthy background would embrace a suicide mission to kill civilians would have been disappointed by his speech. So would anyone looking for an expression of contrition or regret. The brief statement opened with a rambling religious exhortation and then went into the familiar language of Islamic jihad.

He said that his action had been a "religious obligation" and that it was legal under the law of the Qu'ran. But he conceded had acted illegally according to US law; a concept he repeated numerous times as he went through the charges. "My actions make me guilty of a crime within the United States," he admitted. He also issued a threat. "The US should await a great calamity that will befall them at the hands of the mujahadeen," he said.

But, perhaps aware of his "underwear bomber" nickname, he also sternly admonished people not to laugh at him. "If you laugh at us now, we will laugh at you later," he said.

The day of legal drama brought an end to a case that has taken almost two years to come to court and been often marked by bizarre and outrageous moments. Last year Abdulmutallab dismissed his legal team and started to conduct his own defence. Though often quiet and respectful during previous hearings, he was also prone to occasional outbursts, such as calling the US "a cancer" and saying Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki was alive. The latter claim was repeated in court on Tuesday.

He also showed a changing dress sense, shifting from colourful robes to sombre gowns to once requesting to wear a traditional Yemeni belt complete with ceremonial dagger: a request that was denied.

But the theatrics disguised a serious terror plot that only by seeming good fortune failed to kill hundreds of people. The case outlined by the prosecutor showed how Abdulmutallab travelled to Yemen to meet Islamic militants. One of them, a man known as Abu Tarak, came up with the underwear plot and provided the bomb, which was made by a Saudi terrorist. Abdulmutallab also recorded a martyrdom video that appeared as a short segment in a longer more general al-Qaida film. In it, Abdulmutallab posed with a AK-47 propped up behind him and urged Muslims to join the fight.

"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," he said in the clip.

Abdulmutallab did his best to carry out his suicide mission. He boarded the plane in Amsterdam wearing the bomb. At the end of the flight, as it approached Detroit, he went to the bathroom to ritually prepare himself with perfume. When he returned to the seat he put a blanket over his head and pretended to sleep. He then pressed a syringe that was meant to mix chemicals together that would eventually detonate the explosives in the bomb.

However, it only partially ignited the device. The lone witness to give testimony before the trial ended was fellow passenger Mike Zantow. He provided yet another moment of levity in the case by telling the court that the first sign something was wrong was when the man sitting next to Abdulmutallab said: "Hey, dude, your pants are on fire!"

But, as prosecutors were at pains to point out, there was nothing funny about the underwear bomb plot. They had amassed a wealth of forensic evidence and witness testimony that would have shown how close it came to causing a major atrocity in the skies above Detroit.

As lead prosecutor Jonathan Tukel put it in his opening statement: "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."


Paul Harris in Detroit

The GuardianTramp

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