By Ed White
DETROIT, Mich. — A Nigerian man pleaded guilty Wednesday to trying to bring down a jetliner with a bomb in his underwear, telling a federal judge that he acted in retaliation for the killing of Muslims worldwide and referring to the failed explosive as a “blessed weapon.”
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who acknowledged working for al-Qaida and never denied the allegations, entered the plea against his attorney’s advice on the second day of his trial. He stands to get a mandatory life sentence for the 2009 attack that aimed to kill nearly 300 people on Christmas Day in the skies above Detroit.
Abdulmutallab answered the judge’s questions and read a political statement, warning that if the United States continues “to persist and promote the blasphemy of Muhammad and the prophets,” it risks “a great calamity … through the hands of the mujahedeen soon.”
Abdulmutallab suggested more than a year ago that he wanted to plead guilty but never did. He dropped his four-person, publicly financed defense team in favor of representing himself with help from a prominent local lawyer appointed by the court, Anthony Chambers.
After the prosecution gave its opening statement Tuesday, Chambers declined to give one for the defense, preferring to save it for later in the trial. Outside court Wednesday, he said he had urged his client not to admit anything.
“We wanted to continue the trial, but we respect his decision,” Chambers said.
Passenger Lori Haskell of Newport, Mich., watched the plea by video from a room near the court. She called Abdulmutallab’s statement “chilling” but not surprising.
The Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight was just moments away from landing when Abdulmutallab tried to detonate the bomb in his pants. It failed to go off, but his clothes caught fire, and passengers jumped on him when they saw smoke and flame.
The government says Abdulmutallab willingly explained the plot twice, first to U.S. border officers who took him off the plane and then in more detail to FBI agents who interviewed him at a hospital after he was treated for burns to his groin.
There were photos of his scorched shorts, video of Abdulmutallab explaining his suicide mission before departing for the U.S. and scores of passengers who could have been called as eyewitnesses.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the plea “removes any doubt that our courts are one of the most effective tools we have to fight terrorism,” referring to a long-running debate over whether suspects such as Abdulmutallab should be tried in civilian or military courtrooms.
“We will let results, not rhetoric, guide our actions,” Holder said.
Dimitrios Bessis of Harrison County, Ga., sat two rows behind Abdulmutallab on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 and used his hat to beat out the flames. He said his trip to Detroit to serve as a potential witness was his first plane ride since the attempted attack.
“I’ve seen men freeze from shock on the plane. It was a horrible experience. I have nightmares from it,” Bessis said.
A woman who sat six rows in front of Abdulmutallab on the plane, said the guilty plea provided her with “relief.”
“It was disheartening and sickening, however, to listen to Abdulmutallab explain why he feels his actions were justified,” Hebba Aref, a Detroit-area native, wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
“As a Muslim myself, I know that he has a completely erroneous and distorted interpretation of the Quran,” Aref said.
Abdulmutallab told investigators he trained in Yemen, which is home base for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. He said he targeted a U.S.-bound flight at the urging of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical, American-born Muslim cleric recently killed by the U.S. military in Yemen.
Abdulmutallab, who told the judge he is 25, pleaded guilty to all eight charges. He is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 12.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel asked if he was carrying a bomb, Abdulmutallab replied: “If you say so.” He said he was “guilty of U.S. law but not in the Quran.”
The case had lasting implications for security screening at American airports.
Abdulmutallab’s defeat of airport security in Amsterdam accelerated the deployment of full-body scanners at U.S. airports. The Transportation Security Administration was using the scanners in some American cities at the time, but now there are nearly 500 devices nationwide.
Passenger Alain Ghonda of Silver Spring, Md., said he came to court “to see the man who tried to kill me.” He took some comfort in Abdulmutallab’s trial.
“At least he will be going away for hopefully forever and not be able to harm other people,” he said.