Christmas Day Bomber Pleads Guilty

The Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 pleaded guilty today. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had tried to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear. Tuesday, on the first day of trial, the government presented its case, including details of what happened on the flight that day. Then Wednesday, Abdulmutallab abruptly pleaded guilty to all eight counts against him. NPR's counter-terrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston talks to Robert Siegel.

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GUY RAZ, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. The man at the center of a plot to bring down a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day 2009 has pleaded guilty to all charges. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab told investigators that al-Qaida's arm in Yemen had sent him on the mission. He also said the group provided the explosives that he had hidden in his underwear. He told the court that he wanted to bring down Northwest flight 253 to avenge the killing of Muslims around the world.

The guilty plea came just as Abdulmutallab's trial was entering its second day. NPR's counter-terrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins us now for more. And Dina, today's guilty plea comes as a surprise, no?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the timing of it is a bit of a surprise, but the guilty plea itself isn't that much of shock. This time last year, Abdulmutallab had fired his legal team and said he would represent himself and the court gave him a legal advisor to help him, but he essentially directed his own defense. And today, that legal advisor told reporters that he didn't want Abdulmutallab to plead guilty, but that's what his client wanted, so he respected his wishes.

SIEGEL: Well, take us back to Christmas Day two years ago and remind us what Abdulmutallab actually did.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he boarded Northwest flight 253 in Amsterdam with these high explosives hidden in his underwear. And prosecutors say he took a long bathroom break when the plane was about an hour outside of Detroit. They say he brushed his teeth, he washed himself and put on perfume ahead of this attack. And as they characterized it, he was making the preparations for martyrdom. And then when he returned to his seat, he covered himself with a blanket and injected these explosives with an accelerant that was supposed to set them off.

And his seatmate was so surprised when these flames started shooting out from Abdulmutallab's pants that he said to him, dude, your pants are on fire.

SIEGEL: And, in fact, passengers tackled him at that point and foiled the plot.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. I mean, basically, they put out the flames. They said that he had his cargo pants down around his ankles and that we was wearing underwear that looked bulky, almost like a diaper. And prosecutors said that while passengers were subduing him, Abdulmutallab told them that he'd been sent by al-Qaida to blow up the plane. So part of what he was facing in this trial was all these witnesses who were going to testify to what happened and they could also say that he freely told them that he'd been sent on a suicide mission by al-Qaida.

So the evidence against him wasn't just what investigators got later, but from witnesses who were actually there on the plane. And some of that was what was presented on the first day of the trial, so Abdulmutallab was going to have a bit of an uphill battle defending himself.

SIEGEL: I think a bit of an uphill battle is an understatement. He pleaded guilty, in fact. And tell us about what he told the court when he did so.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he stood up to read the statement to the judge and he said that he'd done nothing wrong, as he saw it, under Islamic law. But under U.S. law, he had committed a crime. And he said that he'd attacked the U.S. to avenge the killing of Muslims around the world.

SIEGEL: Is this the end of the case?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, basically, it is. But what we lose with plea is learning more about the plot. And one of the key questions was the link between Abdulmutallab and the American-born radical, Imam Anwar al Awlaki.

SIEGEL: Awlaki, of course, was the spiritual leader for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who was killed in Yemen by a CIA drone last month.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. So, we know from earlier reporting that we've done that Abdulmutallab had told investigators that Awlaki was part of the plot. And he said Awlaki not only inspired him, but told him that he should wait until he was close to Detroit or at least over the U.S. to set off his bomb so that there would be more casualties on the ground. And there'd been some hope that this trial would reveal more about exactly what Awlaki's role was in this plot, but the case apparently was one of the reasons why the U.S. had put him on this U.S. target list.

But it was never exactly clear what role he played. And now, with this plea deal, we may never know. Now, as for Abdulmutallab, the defendant in this case, he pleaded guilty to all eight felony charges against him, which included conspiracy to commit terrorism and attempted murder and he faces up to life in prison. He's supposed to be sentenced on January 12th.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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