Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect in a failed Christmas Day 2009 attack of a U.S.-bound airliner, prayed and perfumed himself in the plane’s restroom moments before trying to detonate a bomb sewn into his underwear, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday.
“He was engaging in rituals. He was preparing to die and enter heaven,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel told a court in Detroit as Abdulmutallab’s trial opened. “He purified himself. He washed. He brushed his teeth. He put on perfume. He was praying and perfuming himself to get ready to die.”
Instead, the bomb failed. After Abdulmutallab allegedly activated a plunger on the chemical device, it simply popped and caught fire. Passengers on the flight then tackled the 24-year-old Nigerian and put out the fire, prosecutors said.
Turkel showed jurors a seating chart of the airplane to explain where the events took place.
Abdulmutallab allegedly boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam and attempted to set off the bomb and bring down the plane as it neared its destination of Detroit.
The defendant had asked to represent himself, but informed the court Friday that his adviser, attorney Anthony Chambers, would give his opening statement.
Besides the obvious issue of Abdulmutallab’s guilt or innocence, questions remain about his ties to the American-born radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed last month in a CIA drone strike in north Yemen.
Abdulmutallab allegedly told FBI agents when they arrested him that he was working for al-Qaida and was sent to the U.S. by al-Awlaki, who has been linked to the terrorist network’s Yemen-based affiliate.
Awlaki’s killing is controversial partly because the iman was an American, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents. His summary execution by drone has raised questions not only about due process, but also about the evidence U.S. officials had to determine that he was an al-Qaida operative. The Abdulmutallab trial could provide some answers to those questions.
That’s because Awlaki was put on the U.S. “capture or kill” target list shortly after the Christmas Day bombing attempt. His connection to Abdulmutallab’s case is one of the reasons officials give for targeting Awlaki — although evidence of his role has never been presented in court or released publicly.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that a secret memo was written by Obama administration lawyers laying out the reasons why Awlaki should be on the target list. That memo came out in the spring of 2010 and was never made public. The Christmas Day bombing attempt is allegedly cited in that memo.
The Abdulmutallab case could also provide a window into al-Qaida’s recruitment process. Abdulmutallab was most likely radicalized during his time at university in London. He is thought to have discovered Awlaki’s sermons at that time, and allegedly became an acolyte of sorts to the imam. The trial might provide more detail on that, as well.
Among the major issues at trial is whether Abdulmutallab was read his rights immediately. Much of what he told FBI agents about his al-Qaida links was allegedly said while he was either on the way to the hospital to take care of massive burns he suffered from the bomb fire, or in the hospital when he was being treated. That is expected to be one line of defense.
The trial is expected to last four weeks.
The Associated Press and Dina Temple-Raston contributed to this report.