'Underwear Bomber' To Be Sentenced In Detroit

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas Day 2009, is set to be sentenced in Detroit Thursday. That case fundamentally changed the way terrorism cases will be prosecuted in the U.S.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this country today, we expect to learn the sentence of the man who tried to blow up a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas Day, in 2009. His plot failed, but it changed the way the United States will handle terrorism cases in the future.

It used to be that terrorism suspects could expect to stand trial as criminals in federal court. Now, they're more likely to be tried in a military court. NPR's Dina Temple Raston has our story.

DINA TEMPLE RASTON, BYLINE: The argument over where to try terrorists reached a critical stage three Christmases ago. That's when a man named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. And as the plane began to descend, we now know, Abdulmutallab slipped into the airplane lavatory, washed himself, brushed his teeth, and then returned to his seat to inject a syringe of chemicals into the bomb hidden in his underwear.

The FBI's special agent in charge that night was a man named Andy Arena. He was at home, taking out the trash, when his pager went off.

ANDY ARENA: I was actually looking at the email recently - I kept it - and it was: We have a report of a firecracker going off, on an inbound flight from Amsterdam.

And to this day, I don't know if it was just experience or what, but something told me, that's not right.

RASTON: So he asked for clarification.

ARENA: And it came back, a small explosion - and I just left; went right to the airport.

RASTON: By the time Arena was in his car, Abdulmutallab was being rushed to a nearby burn unit. Arena says that Abdulmutallab was talking to FBI agents all the way to the hospital. He said he was al-Qaida. He said he meant to martyr himself and bring down the plane.

Agents kept him talking. They were worried that if this was an al-Qaida plot, other planes might be targeted. What happened next is what has made the Abdulmutallab case so important. There were reports claiming that the Christmas Day bomber had been read his Miranda rights almost immediately - and that he then clammed up. The FBI's Arena says that's not what happened.

ARENA: It was another six hours or so, when we went back in with a second team and did Mirandize him - and he did not talk.

RASTON: Six hours. Arena says the FBI agents in Detroit got valuable information before they read him his rights. Still, that small turn of events has changed the way the U.S. may deal with foreign terrorists in the future.

SAM RASCOFF: There's an irony here in that Abdulmutallab, of course, is about to be sentenced in an ordinary Article 3 court. But in a way, his is the last of its kind.

RASTON: Sam Rascoff is a law professor at New York University.

RASCOFF: After Abdulmutallab, all of the assumptions that had been built into the system - namely, that someone arrested on American soil, clearly in violation of American criminal law, was going to be charged and brought to an American jury - after December 25th, those expectations were, essentially, fundamentally changed.

RASTON: Changed because a new law says that anyone like the Christmas Day bomber - foreign, linked to al-Qaida, and setting out to attack the U.S. - should be tried in a military court, not a criminal one. No one is quite sure how it's going to work in practice. The FBI's Andy Arena says he doesn't know if the FBI will find itself in the unusual position of turning newly arrested suspects over to the military.

ARENA: The proof is in the pudding; is, how quickly is that going to happen?

RASTON: And essentially, you're going to allow the military to step in when that happens.

ARENA: Yeah, when the decision is made for the military to step in, that's going to be far above my pay grade. So at that point, we'll do whatever the president says.

RASTON: The man who's at the heart of this debate is expected to be in federal court later today. Prosecutors want the judge to impose a mandatory life sentence.

Dina Temple Raston, NPR News, Detroit.

INSKEEP: And Dina will be in the courtroom today as we learn that sentence.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.