DETROIT — A young Nigerian allegedly on a terrorist mission for al-Qaida prayed, washed and put on perfume moments before trying to detonate a bomb in his underwear to bring down an international jetliner on Christmas 2009, a prosecutor told jurors as the man's trial opened Tuesday.
Virtually everyone aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 had holiday plans, but Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab believed his calling was martyrdom, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel said.
In the plane's bathroom, "he was engaging in rituals. He was preparing to die and enter heaven," Tukel said. "He purified himself. He washed. He brushed his teeth. He put on perfume. He was praying and perfuming himself to get ready to die."
After returning to his seat, Abdulmutallab pushed a syringe plunger into the chemical bomb in his underwear, an action that produced a "pop," the prosecutor told jurors.
The bomb didn't work as planned but Abdulmutallab was engulfed in flames, said Tukel, who displayed the flight's seating chart on a screen to show jurors where things happened on the plane.
The day's first and only witness, passenger Mike Zantow of Madison, Wisconsin, said Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for 10 to 15 minutes, then returned and put a blanket over himself. He heard the "pop" and said another passenger remarked, "Hey, dude, your pants are on fire."
Prosecutors delivered their opening statements after an unexplained 70-minute recess requested by Abdulmutallab and his attorney, Anthony Chambers, shortly after they entered the courtroom.
Chambers later informed the judge that he would waive his opening statement until later in the trial, a decision that came as somewhat of a surprise.
Chambers had just last week persuaded Abdulmutallab, 24, not to give his own statement even though Abdulmutallab technically is acting as his own lawyer.
Earlier, Chambers had asked the judge to ban the word "bomb" or "explosive" from being used in the trial until final arguments, saying it's up to the jury to decide what caused the smoke and fire.
"I'm going to deny that motion. ... It makes no sense whatsoever," U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds said.
Edmunds also told Detroit-area attorney Kurt Haskell to leave the courtroom before opening statements began because he could be called as a defense witness. He was a passenger on Flight 253 and believes the U.S. government conspired with Abdulmutallab to outfit him with a fake bomb.
Abdulmutallab is relying on Chambers to handle the minute-by-minute work in the courtroom, meaning jurors are likely to see a more focused defense and not a wild justification for trying to bring down the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight.
Abdulmutallab has written a few court filings in his own hand, including a request to be judged by Islamic law. He has at times appeared agitated in court, declaring that Osama bin Laden and a radical Muslim cleric recently killed by the U.S. are alive. He also has objected to trial testimony from experts who will talk about al-Qaida and martyrdom.
The government's evidence is stacked high. Abdulmutallab was badly burned in a plane full of witnesses. The government says he told FBI agents he was working for al Qaida and directed by Anwar al-Alwaki, a radical, American-born Muslim cleric recently killed by the U.S. in Yemen. There are also photos of his scorched shorts as well as video of Abdulmutallab explaining his suicide mission before departing for the U.S.
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