Abdulmutallab May Not Talk Much in ‘Underwear Bomber’ Trial

The trial of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is charged with trying to detonate explosives hidden in underwear on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009, began Tuesday. Gwen Ifill discusses the opening day of the case with WDET Public Radio's Quinn Klinefelter.

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    For more from inside the courtroom, we turn to Quinn Klinefelter, senior news editor of WDET Public Radio in Detroit.

    Quinn, give us a sense of the scene inside that courtroom today.


    Lots of security. It's usually a very tight place as it is, being a federal building, but today lots of police dogs everywhere, full body scanners, that type of thing.

    Mr. Abdulmutallab himself was in there, in court dressed in a traditional garment and cap, and looking around a lot of times as if he was trying to actually find some kind of family there. The scene was something as you would expect, except for the fact that neither he nor his court-appointed adviser actually gave an opening statement, which took a few people aback.


    But the prosecution did get to make their case. What did they say today?


    They gave a very detailed description of what they thought actually happened during the attack, very passionate in terms of the passengers trying to actually douse the flames that were coming from Mr. Abdulmutallab. In fact, they said that they thought he had erupted into a fire ball.

    It was a chemical fire. And so they had a guy that was even trying to put it out with a hat. And that didn't work. They had to get fire extinguishers from the flight attendants. They laid Mr. Abdulmutallab down on the aisle, and his clothes were mostly burned away, they said, at the lower extremities.

    They took him to the front of the plane, where he supposedly, without being — having too much prompts, actually told several people that he was trying to explode a device. That's been one of the contentious arguments in the trial. Was he in fact actually doing this, or was it just an alleged activity?

    And according to the authorities, he told several people before the plane had actually landed that he was trying to explode a device and take the plane down.


    You know, Quinn, after hearing what the government's argument is — and that's basically the side of the story we have been hearing since he was arrested — it's tough to imagine what his defense is.

    You mentioned he had a court-appointed adviser. He's going to represent himself?


    Yes. In these cases, the legal system wants to make sure that somebody can't get off because they say they didn't have a fair trial.

    So what they will always do is try to have somebody appointed to advise them on legal maneuvers. In this case, they have attorney Anthony Chambers. And he, in fact, said that he would take the opening statement, that Mr. Abdulmutallab had agreed. In fact, it sounds as if Mr. Abdulmutallab may not talk much during the actual trial.

    And they deferred that opening statement. I have talked to Mr. Chambers, the adviser, a number of times in the past. He says that he believes that in some ways it may be better to wait until the government presents their entire case and then try to knock it down piece by piece as he goes forward. So he can delay his statement until probably about halfway through the trial.


    But one of the things he did try to do, I read today, was tried to have the use of the words bomb and explosive excluded from the prosecution's argument?



    Again, there was the question as to whether or not this device was powerful enough to actually bring the plane down. And the government says that not only it was, but that they have a model of the bomb that they actually have video that will show just how destructive of a force that it would have contained.

    And, in fact, that's been one of the several setbacks that Mr. Abdulmutallab has suffered legally since the case — actually before the trial began. He gave a statement to the FBI for about 45 minutes after he was taken into custody, where he basically, according to the government, confessed to everything, that he was trained in Yemen, that they gave him a bomb that was made by a Saudi Arabian who trained him in the use of it, and that he intended to do a suicide mission and bring down the plane.

    This was all given to him without having been read his rights to remain silent. And so the defense thought they would be able to exclude those from the trial, but the judge actually said there was a national security exception, that the agents involved were so concerned that this could have been a coordinated series of attacks, very similar to 9/11, that it was within their rights to be able to question him without giving him the Miranda rights, as they're called, and that that information should still be included in the trial.

    That was something that the defense, I think, was counting on not happening. And it's been a bit of a blow before the trial actually even got under way.


    Well, and before the trial got under way, there had been reports of interesting outbursts from Mr. Abdulmutallab, including his screaming "Osama is alive" in one of his appearances, and actually asking that he be tried according to Islamic law.


    Yes, saying that if people didn't believe or understand the Koran, then they couldn't actually judge him fairly.

    In fact, that seems to be, a lot of legal experts believe, one of the reasons why he may not talk a whole lot during the trial. He made that outburst. He yelled Anwar is alive when they were doing jury selection, at one point just stopped proceedings and kind of said "jihad" out of nowhere.

    And it seems as if, as he's going forward, that he did actually question one witness during — or one prospective juror during the jury selection process, and was very calm when he did that, and talked a little bit — she was worried about what reprisals might await somebody depending on what the verdict actually would be.


    And when you mentioned….


    And he said, well, if the…


    I'm sorry. I just wanted to get this in. When you mentioned Anwar just a moment ago, you mean Anwar al-Awlaki, who he is alleged to have gotten some of his guidance from?



    In fact, during the court proceedings today, that was one of the things that came out, that it didn't sound as if the government was Even saying that he had ever actually met Mr. Awlaki himself, but that he had heard recordings of him and that that drove him to want to try to pursue a violent jihad.

    That seemed to be a place where the government was a bit murky on in terms of what the actual motivation would have been for Mr. Abdulmutallab. But they very much established the things that he went through to try to accomplish whatever goal he was. They said that he went to Yemen precisely to meet somebody from al-Qaida, that he actually did meet an operative, and that they decided that the best use of him would be to try to bring down an American airliner.


    Quinn Klinefelter of WDET Public Radio in Detroit, thanks for filling us in.


    Thank you, Gwen.