Christmas Day Bomber Sentenced To Life In Prison

Feb 16, 2012
Originally published on February 16, 2012 3:10 pm

The man who tried to blow up a U.S. passenger plane three Christmases ago was sentenced to life in prison in a Detroit courtroom today. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 25, boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam on Dec. 25, 2009, with a massive bomb hidden in his underwear. As the plane approached Detroit, he tried to detonate the explosives. They failed to go off.

Four months ago, on the second day of his criminal trial, Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty.

Judge Nancy Edmunds' decision to put Abdulmutallab away for life without possibility of parole was not a surprise: two of the eight terrorism and conspiracy charges to which he pleaded guilty carried mandatory life sentences.

"This was an act of terrorism that cannot be quibbled with," Edmunds said.

Several people who were on the flight that day spoke in court ahead of the sentencing. They talked about what the attempted attack had wrought and how, even today, nearly three years later, they are still skittish about flying. Abdulmutallab, who acted as his own attorney, also provided a statement to the court. He didn't use the opportunity to express remorse, but instead sought to explain why his attack on Flight 253 was a mission from God.

Abdulmutallab spoke briefly in court. He said his sentencing was a "day of victory," adding that the Quran instructs Muslims to kill people in God's name and Jews should be driven out of Palestine.

Edmunds listened patiently as the young Nigerian spoke and after he was done, gave her ruling.

While the life sentence was hardly a surprise — it was mandated by federal law — some of the details that came out ahead of Abdulmutallab's sentencing were new. In particular, a document prepared for Judge Edmunds that assessed the level of danger Abdulmutallab presented shed new light on the role American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki played in the most major plot on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In a 22-page report, an Israeli criminologist who specializes in interviewing suicide bombers, Simon Perry, said that Abdulmutallab had revealed that Awlaki not only inspired him, which was known, but also masterminded the attack.

According to the report, Abdulmutallab told the FBI that he went to Yemen in search of Awlaki in late 2009. Abdulmutallab had listened to Awlaki's sermons and heard in them a calling: He decided his destiny was to become a martyr for Islam. So he traveled to Yemen and went from mosque to mosque asking if someone could help him reach Awlaki.

Eventually the two traded text messages. Awlaki made Abdulmuttallab write an essay about his commitment to jihad and then, eventually, had him driven to his desert home. Awlaki discussed the plot with Abdulmutallab, introduced him to an al-Qaida explosives expert who made the underwear bomb, and then spent days helping Abdulmutallab perfect his martyrdom video.

Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Yemen last year. The Obama administration said that he was an operative for al-Qaida and therefore, even though he was an American, born in New Mexico, he was a legitimate target. Until the Abdulmutallab sentencing document, the Obama administration had not provided any proof for its allegations. Awlaki was better known as a propagandist for al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Justice Department may have decided to release those new details about his more operational role to prepare for a speech that Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to give in the coming days that outlines the legal justification the administration used to target Awlaki.

Awlaki was not the only American killed in that Yemeni drone attack. A North Carolina man named Samir Khan was also in the car when the drone struck. The sentencing document includes some details about Khan, too. It says that he also met with Abdulmutallab in Yemen and provided counseling and advice ahead of Abdulmutallab's Christmas Day mission.

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Now to the latest in a high-profile terrorism case. Three Christmases ago, a young man was on board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit armed with a bomb. It was hidden in his underwear. The bomb malfunctioned and the would-be suicide bomber was caught. He eventually pleaded guilty to terrorism charges. That defendant, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was sentenced in Detroit today to life in prison without parole.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston was in the courtroom. She joins me now. And, Dina, why don't you walk us through what happened in the sentencing today?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, you know, there's a certain protocol to these sentencing hearings. It usually starts out the victims' statements then the defendant is allowed to speak, and then the sentence itself is meted out.

So there were five victims who spoke, including the flight attendant who actually put out the fire that was on Abdulmutallab when the bomb flamed but didn't actually go off. Then we heard from Abdulmutallab himself, and he definitely wasn't repentant. When the victims were speaking, he didn't seem to be listening. And, in fact, in his statement, he ended up addressing each of them, and he said that he had boarded that flight with a bomb because mujahedeen - religious warriors, like him - were proud to kill in the name of God. And then in his statement, he mentioned Osama bin Laden and the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and he said the two of them lived on through jihadists like him.

BLOCK: So after that statement from the defendant came the sentence from the judge: life in prison without parole.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. Judge Nancy Edmunds, you know, listened to his statement, and he had pleaded guilty to eight counts of terrorism and attempted murder charges. And she basically gave him the maximum sentence for every count. And I don't think that that outcome was much of a surprise.

BLOCK: Dina, we heard you mention the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Talk about his role in this plot.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. Well, you remember Awlaki is that radical cleric who may be best known as a propagandist for al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. He had this huge presence and a Facebook page and a lot of English-speaking followers. What we knew about Abdulmutallab was that he had said he was inspired by him. What is new are these details that came out in this court document that was supposed to help the judge make a decision about the sentencing. And that document revealed the extent of Awlaki's role in the plot.

Abdulmutallab told investigators that he went to Yemen in search of Awlaki, and he wanted to martyr himself. And he eventually actually went to Awlaki's house in the desert and trained with him for several days. And he said Awlaki connected him with an al-Qaida bomb maker who actually constructed the underwear bomb and even helped him make his martyrdom video.

BLOCK: Was Abdulmutallab basically saying that al-Awlaki was the mastermind, the instigator ordering this attack then?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, essentially. And the reason why this is so important is because Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen late last year. And it was a very controversial strike because Awlaki was born in New Mexico. He's an American. And the Obama administration said he was operational - was an operational threat. But they provided any evidence to back that up. The release of these details from the Abdulmutallab case are a start. And we're expecting the attorney general, Eric Holder, to talk about the legal justification for killing Awlaki any time now.

I mean, we understand that there's a speech being prepared to at least address the issue. And we don't know when that speech is going to be given, but it seems that the details in this Abdulmutallab filing could be readying the ground for that.

BLOCK: And, Dina, as for the so-called underwear bomber, where will he be serving this life - this sentence of life in prison?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's unclear, although I asked a U.S. prosecutor about this, and she said more than likely he would be at the supermax in Florence, Colorado, where a lot of these other convicted terrorists are also serving their time.

BLOCK: OK, Dina, thank you very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. We were talking about the sentencing today of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.