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‘Underwear Bomber’ Trial Opens in Detroit

October 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: And we turn to the trial of the Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up an American airplane nearly two years ago. Opening arguments were heard in a Detroit courtroom today.

Christmas Day, 2009, Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was on approach to Detroit’s Wayne County International Airport. U.S. authorities say Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab emerged from the bathroom, took his seat and then tried to set off explosives sewn into his underwear.

The device made principally from the chemical PETN failed to explode, but it did catch fire.

Alain Ghonda was one of the passengers who witnessed the scene.

ALAIN GHONDA, Northwest Flight 253: And then I saw the smoke come in out of his clothes. So I yelled “Fire, fire.” And he had his hand like he was moving something or doing something. So I yelled, “He’s a terrorist.”

GWEN IFILL: Abdulmutallab had bordered a flight in Lagos, Nigeria, clearing security there. He was then rescreened and passed during a connection through Amsterdam.

Investigators say he confessed that he trained in Yemen and that his mission was ordered by Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who was killed in a U.S. missile strike in Yemen 10 days ago. The Detroit bombing plot also raised new questions about U.S. security and intelligence. It turned out that Abdulmutallab’s own father had warned American authorities of his son’s radicalization.

And Britain had banned his entry into the U.K. In the federal trial that began today, the charges against Abdulmutallab range from attempted murder to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. The 24-year-old is acting as his own lawyer, but is being assisted in his defense.