DETROIT — The trial of a young African accused of trying to bring down an airliner with a bomb in his underwear is no whodunit. Prosecutors have his hospital-bed confession, dozens of witnesses, remnants of the explosive and an al-Qaida video featuring the 24-year-old explaining his suicide mission.
Nonetheless, the prosecution of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab carries high stakes. His failed attack was the first act of terrorism in the U.S. during the Obama administration, and it could have implications in the debate over whether terrorism suspects should be tried in civilian or military courts.
The case, which starts Tuesday with jury selection, also revealed the rise of a dangerous al-Qaida affiliate and the growing influence of a radical Islamic cleric who was killed by a CIA-U.S. military strike only last week.
Abdulmutallab, a well-educated Nigerian from an upper-class family who has pleaded not guilty, was directed by American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and said he wanted to become a martyr on Christmas 2009, when he boarded Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Amsterdam, according to the government.
A conviction on multiple charges could bolster the argument that suspected terrorists should be prosecuted through civilian courts, not military proceedings. Full-throated bipartisan opposition forced the Obama administration to cancel a New York trial for professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, although there have been no similar issues in Detroit.
"Convictions that are achieved in federal court using proper procedures will be upheld on appeal. That's simply too powerful a tool for the president not to use," said Vijay Padmanabhan, a former State Department lawyer who handled cases involving terror-related detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"What people will be looking to see is whether the administration can bring what appears be a fairly straightforward case to fruition," Padmanabhan said.
Abdulmutallab faces eight charges, including conspiracy to commit terrorism and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. The government says he wanted to blow up the plane by detonating chemicals in his underwear, just seven minutes before the jet carrying 279 passengers and a crew of 11 was to land at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
But the bomb didn't work. Passengers assisted by crew members saw flames and pounced on Abdulmutallab.
Smoke was everywhere and "we thought we were losing our lives," said Patricia "Scotti" Keepman of Oconomowoc, Wis., who was seated many rows behind Abdulmutallab with her husband, daughter and two newly adopted children from Ethiopia.
"We held hands and said, 'Jesus loves me.' The flight attendant was screaming," Keepman said. "Our goal was to not let these kids know we might not make it. ... He's forgiven in our eyes, but he needs to be held accountable in a trial. It's as simple as that."
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 for 50 minutes, following treatment for serious burns to his groin.
Abdulmutallab told authorities he trained in Yemen, home base for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. He said he was influenced by al-Awlaki, who was killed Friday by an air strike that President Barack Obama called a "major blow" to al-Qaida's most dangerous franchise.
Following the strike, a U.S. official outlined new details of al-Awlaki's involvement against the U.S., including Abdulmutallab's alleged mission. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said al-Awlaki specifically directed Abdulmutallab to detonate an explosive device over U.S. airspace to maximize casualties.
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