A Nigerian man on a suicide mission for al-Qaida was sentenced Thursday to life in prison for attempting to blow up an international flight with a bomb in his underwear as the plane approached Detroit on Christmas 2009.
The mandatory punishment for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the well-educated son of a wealthy banker, was never in doubt after he surprised the courtroom and pleaded guilty to all charges on the second day of trial last fall.
Abdulmutallab sat with his hands folded under his chin, leaning back in his chair as the sentence was announced.
In October, Abdulmutallab said the bomb in his underwear was a “blessed weapon” to avenge poorly treated Muslims around the world. It failed to fully detonate aboard an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight but caused a brief fire that badly burned his groin. Passengers pounced on Abdulmutallab and forced him to the front of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 where he was held until the plane landed minutes later.
Abdulmutallab, 25, talked freely to the FBI about his desire to commit martyrdom for his Islamic faith. In 2009, months before the attack, he traveled to Yemen in a desperate bid to see Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric and one of the best-known al-Qaida figures, according to the government. He told investigators that his mission was approved after a three-day visit with his mentor.
Al-Awlaki and the bomb maker were killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen last year, just days before Abdulmutallab’s trial. At the time, President Barack Obama publicly blamed al-Awlaki for the terrorism plot.
Abdulmutallab is an “unrepentant would-be mass murderer who views his crimes as divinely inspired and blessed, and who views himself as under a continuing obligation to carry out such crimes,” prosecutors said in a court filing last week.
Anthony Chambers, an attorney assigned to help Abdulmutallab, said a mandatory life sentence was cruel and unconstitutional punishment for a crime that didn’t physically hurt anyone except Abdulmutallab. In reply, the government said there was plenty of hurt.
“Unsuccessful terrorist attacks still engender fear in the broader public, which, after all, is one of their main objectives,” prosecutors said in a court filing before sentencing.
Indeed, Alain Ghonda, a consultant from Silver Spring, Md., who was a passenger on Flight 253, said he travels the globe with heightened awareness since the failed attack.
“After having that experience, you do not know who’s sitting next to you,” Ghonda, 40, said before Thursday’s hearing. “They may look like passengers, but they might want to harm you.”
The case also had lasting implications for security screening at American airports. Abdulmutallab’s ability to defeat security in Amsterdam contributed to the deployment of full-body scanners at U.S. airports.
The Transportation Security Administration was using the scanners in some American cities at the time, but the attack accelerated their placement. There are now hundreds of the devices nationwide.