Not much to joke about in 'underwear bomber' trial | Paul Harris

It may be easy to crack jokes about the 'underwear bomber' case, but Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's trial reveals there's nothing very amusing about the deaths of hundreds of civilians avoided by sheer luck

For one moment Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab seemed a little aware of his own fate as the butt of jokes worldwide. "If you laugh at us now, we will laugh at you later," he told the courtroom as part of his dramatic speech after his sudden guilty plea.

But what else could people do faced with someone who is known universally as the "underwear bomber"? Or whose terror attack began with the now immortal cry from the man seated next to him on Flight 253 to Detroit: "Hey, dude, your pants are on fire!"

In reality there was little else that seemed funny in either the prosecution case against Abdulmutallab or the rest of his rant against America and Israel and call for retribution on the country now set to jail him for the rest of his life.

The team behind top prosecutor Jonathan Tukel had assembled a massive amount of evidence about Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow a plane packed with hundreds of civilians out of the sky over a major American city. Very little of it was amusing. There was the complex and sophisticated device that Abdulmutallab was wearing: packed with a cascading sequence of high explosives and triggered with a chemical syringe. There was the trip to Yemen to meet with radicals who came up with the plan and supplied the bomb, made by a radical Saudi. There were Abdulmutallab's own admissions – to the FBI, to his fellow passengers who put out the flames and to hospital staff – that he had wanted to bring down the plane and become a holy martyr.

Chillingly, the lone witness to testify, passenger Mike Zantow, described how Abdulmutallab had failed to react in any way as the flames from his own bomb set him on fire. So deep into his terrorist act was he, that even as fire burned him, Abdulmutallab did not speak, move or cry out.

To people in court that did not sound funny. It sounded terrifying. But the most poignant part of the prosecution case were the biographies and stories of those flying alongside Abdulmutallab. There was the young Korean-American flight attendant. Or a woman who had just adopted abroad and was bringing the child home. There were people on work trips and shopping holidays or who were seeing relatives.

"All of these passengers had plans to be somewhere," Tukel told the jury. And all of them would have been dead had not sheer luck prevented Abdulmutallab's device from exploding."

Nor did Abdulmutallab's speech provide much amusement. There was no sign of regret or remorse or relief that no one had died. There was just an attempt at justification of the slaughter of innocent civilians by referencing the wider complaints of the Muslim world against US and Israeli policy. It was old hat and familiar stuff, delivered with a false justification that his actions were sanctioned by Islam even if forbidden by US criminal law. It was also accompanied by a threat of future actions to come which showed Abdulmutallab believed future attempted bombings would still be justified.

Lastly - and perhaps least funny of all – was that there was no light shed on just why Abdulmutallab chose to take the path he did. Neither his own speech nor the prosecution case came up with any explanation as to why a highly educated young Nigerian from a wealthy background would choose to embark on a suicide mission aimed at killing several hundred strangers.

"He had the opportunity to do anything he wanted with his life," Tukel said. That was true. He did. But he chose to commit an act of terrorism and we still do not really know why.

Abdulmutallab merely said he was following a "religious obligation". His unusual method has always overshadowed all the other details of this case.

Ironically, if it had succeeded – if all that remained of Flight 253 were smouldering fragments – then perhaps we would have examined his case more deeply. We might never have known or cared where he had hidden his bomb.


Paul Harris

The GuardianTramp

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