DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – 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.
In a crowded courtroom that included some passengers from Northwest Airlines Flight 253, Abdulmutallab read a statement that lasted about five minutes. At one point he said he is proud to kill in the name of God, adding that that is what God, in the Quran, has told Muslims to do.
Five of the victims on that flight also spoke before sentencing.
Lori Haskel said that she and her husband got emotional when they, for the first time since that night, saw the flight attendant that they say saved their lives.
“We were eight rows behind and so we saw him on the plane. And when we saw him today my husband said, ‘Is that the flight attendant that put the fire out?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, go ask him.
“So, you know, he did and we got to thank him for saving our lives. And he’s very modest about it. He won’t even take credit for it — he says, ‘Oh, it was everybody on the plane’ … No, it was him,” Haskel said.
Speaking outside the court, Abdulmutallab’s standby attorney Anthony Chambers read from a statement from Abdulmutallab’s family saying they are grateful that the unfortunate incident of that night did not result in any injury or death.
“The message today I think, as one of the victims so eloquently put it … al-Qaida has lost once again. America has won once again. We always do,” said U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade.
McQuade said this wraps up the case, at least on the government’s end.
“He has the right to appeal. Judge Edmunds advised him of his right to appeal and, so if he chooses to do that that will continue. But we have no intention of charging anyone else,” she said.
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.
(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)