DETROIT: A young Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a packed airliner bound for the United States on Christmas Day 2009 was due in court Tuesday to stand trial for one of al Qaeda’s biggest failed plots.
Jurors will be chosen this week before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, popularly known as the “underwear bomber,” contests charges that he tried to kill nearly 300 people aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
The trial will be closely watched as it comes after the killing of al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaqi in a US air strike in Yemen. US intelligence officials have repeatedly linked the US-born cleric to the Christmas Day plot.
Abdulmutallab, 24, has fired his attorneys and insisted on representing himself, though Judge Nancy Edmunds has repeatedly urged him to let a lawyer argue his case and appointed “standby counsel” to help him prepare.
While he accepted some help, Abdulmutallab insists he will make his own opening statement and will question witnesses during what is expected to be a weeks-long trial.
The Christmas Day plot was foiled when explosives stitched into Abdulmutallab’s underwear failed to detonate and only caused a small fire, allowing passengers and crew members to restrain him.
The botched operation triggered global alarm and led the United States to adopt stringent new screening and security measures, including controversial pat downs at airports and a massive expansion of the no-fly list.
The reputation of the nation’s intelligence services also took a hit because Abdulmutallab’s father, a prominent Nigerian banker, had warned the CIA about his son’s growing radicalization.
Republicans capitalized on the missteps and the revived security fears to paint President Barack Obama as weak on terror.
They have blocked his plans to shut down Guantanamo Bay and prosecute self-confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other high-profile “enemy combatants” in US civilian courts.
Zacarias Moussaoui, the only 9/11 plotter to be tried in a US court, also represented himself and tried to use his trial as a platform for al Qaeda propaganda.
Abdulmutallab was calm and respectful during most of his pre-trial hearings, but as the case moved closer to trial he grew disruptive and unruly.
At one point, he said Muslims could only be judged by the law of the Quran, and as he walked into court for a September 15 pre-trial hearing, he shouted out “Osama’s alive!”, referring to slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The botched Christmas Day plot cast a spotlight on Yemen, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is increasingly seen by US officials as a threat comparable to the terror network’s core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Last week the Washington Post reported that the United States was building an array of new drone bases in east Africa and the Indian Ocean to better strike at al Qaeda targets in Yemen and war-torn Somalia.
Opening statements are expected on October 11.