DETROIT — The Christmas flight was just minutes from its arrival in Detroit when smoke filled the cabin. Patricia "Scotti" Keepman, who was traveling with her family and two newly adopted children from Ethiopia, braced for the worst.
"We held hands and said, 'Jesus loves me.' The flight attendant was screaming," said Keepman, of Oconomowoc, Wis. "Our goal was to not let these kids know we might not make it."
Nearly two years later, trial starts with jury selection Tuesday for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian accused of trying to bring down the international jetliner with a bomb in his underwear. Prosecutors have a hospital-bed confession from him, dozens of witnesses, remnants of the explosive and an al-Qaida video with the 24-year-old explaining his suicide mission.
"He's forgiven in our eyes, but he needs to be held accountable in a trial. It's as simple as that," Keepman said.
The case seems matter-of-fact but carries high stakes. The 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 episode 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, was directed by American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and said he wanted to become a martyr on Christmas 2009, when he boarded 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.
Abdulmutallab, who has pleaded not guilty, 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.
The government says he 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.
Osama bin Laden appeared in a video declaring Abdulmutallab a "hero." Abdulmutallab also has been lauded by al-Qaida's English-language Web magazine Inspire, whose editor was killed along with al-Awlaki.
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