(Updates with prosecutor’s statement in eighth paragraph.)
Oct. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty to all eight charges in the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day 2009, in a change of plea announced today as his trial was to start its second day.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds in Detroit immediately swore in the Nigerian-born Abdulmutallab, telling the so-called underwear bomber he had the right to remain silent. He waived the right and admitted the charges against him.
The surprise announcement by Abdulmutallab and attorney Anthony Chambers, so-called standby counsel appointed to assist him, came as the day’s first witness was about to be called. Abdulmutallab is representing himself. Chambers and U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade said Abdulmutallab will spend the rest of his life in prison.
In a statement to the court, Abdulmutallab said he tried to bomb the plane as an act of retaliation against the U.S. for the “killing of my brothers and sisters in Muslim lands.”
“I intentionally carried an explosive device” onto the plane, he said. The device was concealed in his underwear. He was subdued by passengers after failing to set it off.
Asked if he was aware that his actions were against the law, he replied, “Yes, U.S. law.” He called American law unjust and oppressive according to the Koran.
Edmunds accepted his guilty pleas to all eight felony counts and set sentencing for Jan. 12. The charges include attempted murder and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Abdulmutallab has been in custody since his arrest.
“This case demonstrates that civilian courts are an appropriate tool for bringing terrorists to justice,” McQuade said in a statement released after the plea.
Abdulmutallab had been considering pleading guilty “for quite some time,” Chambers said in an interview today. He decided to enter the plea after the trial began because “he has a better understanding of U.S. law,” Chambers said. “He didn’t want to go through with a trial anymore.”
Abdulmutallab was accused of trying to detonate explosives in his underwear as Northwest Airlines Flight 253, with 279 passengers and 11 crew members, approached Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009. He set fire to his clothing and a wall before passengers subdued him, prosecutors said.
The flight from the Netherlands was carrying children, military personnel and other passengers, many coming to the U.S. for the holidays, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel told the jury in his opening statement yesterday.
“All the passengers had plans to be there, except for one,” Tukel said, referring to the defendant. “His mission, his goal, his sole reason for being on Flight 253 was to blow it up, to kill all the other passengers.”
Abdulmutallab “thought he would end up in heaven as a martyr,” Tukel said.
Prosecutors said Abdulmutallab, a native of Nigeria, traveled to Yemen to become involved in a violent jihad on behalf of al-Qaeda and practiced detonating explosives before the failed attack.
Tukel said today he was “very surprised” by the quick guilty plea. A jury decision would have resulted in the same outcome, conviction on all counts, Tukel said at the press conference in the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit.
The attempted bombing set off heightened security measures at U.S. airports. In January 2010 President Barack Obama ordered U.S. agencies to set clearer lines of responsibility for pursuing terrorism threats and to streamline criteria for adding names to government watch lists.
Abdulmutallab was on the government’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment list, which names about 550,000 individuals with possible terrorist links. He hadn’t been moved from this database to narrower terrorism watch lists including a “selectee” list of about 14,000 names that triggers additional screening at airports or to the “No Fly” list of about 4,000 names, U.S. officials said last year.
Government officials say the attack on the Northwest flight was masterminded by Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Islamic cleric who was killed last month in an American missile attack in Yemen.
The case is U.S. v. Abdulmutallab, 10-cr-20005, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan (Detroit).
--With assistance from Andrew Harris in Chicago. Editors: David E. Rovella, Charles Carter
To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit at firstname.lastname@example.org; Steven Raphael in Detroit at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at firstname.lastname@example.org