A Nigerian who tried to blow up an international flight near Detroit on behalf of al Qaida started a life sentence without parole today.
The mandatory punishment for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was never in doubt after he pleaded guilty in October. The 25-year-old former London student said the bomb in his underwear was a “blessed weapon” to avenge poorly-treated Muslims worldwide.
The bomb failed to fully detonate on board the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight but caused a brief fire which burned Abdulmutallab.
He admitted afterwards that the attack was inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American-born cleric and leading al Qaida figure who was killed by a US drone strike last autumn.
Federal Judge Nancy Edmunds announced the sentence in a crowded courtroom which included some passengers from Northwest Airlines Flight 253.
Earlier, four passengers and a crew member told Judge Edmunds that the event changed their lives forever.
Abdulmutallab looked disinterested during their remarks – he rarely looked up while seated just a few feet away, wearing a white skull cap and an oversized prison T-shirt.
Abdulmutallab “has never expressed doubt or regret or remorse about his mission”, the judge said.
“In contrast, he sees that mission as divinely inspired and a continuing mission.”
Life in prison is a “just punishment for what he has done”, she added. “The defendant poses a significant ongoing threat to the safety of American citizens everywhere.”
Abdulmutallab, who was educated in Europe and is the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker, told the government that he trained in Yemen under the eye of al-Awlaki.
He chose to detonate a bomb on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight but the device failed and badly burned him. He quickly confessed after he was hauled off the plane.
“Mujahideen are proud to kill in the name of God. And that is exactly what God told us to do in the Koran... Today is a day of victory,” he said in court.
The judge allowed prosecutors to show a video of the FBI demonstrating the power of the explosive material found in his underwear. Abdulmutallab twice said loudly “Allahu akbar”, which means God is great.
Al-Awlaki and the bomb maker were killed in a US drone strike in Yemen last year, just days before Abdulmutallab’s trial. At the time, US President Barack Obama publicly blamed al-Awlaki for the terrorism plot.
Abdulmutallab was an “unrepentant would-be mass murderer who views his crimes as divinely inspired and blessed, and who views himself as under a continuing obligation to carry out such crimes”, prosecutors said in a court filing last week.
Anthony Chambers, a lawyer assigned to help Abdulmutallab, said a mandatory life sentence was cruel and unconstitutional punishment for a crime which did not physically hurt anyone except Abdulmutallab himself. In reply, the government said there was plenty of hurt.
“Unsuccessful terrorist attacks still engender fear in the broader public, which, after all, is one of their main objectives,” prosecutors said before sentencing.
Indeed, Alain Ghonda, 48, a consultant from Silver Spring, Maryland, who was a passenger on Flight 253, said he travels the world with heightened awareness since the failed attack.
“After having that experience, you do not know who’s sitting next to you,” he said before yesterday’s hearing. “They may look like passengers, but they might want to harm you.”
The case also had lasting implications for security screening at American airports. Abdulmutallab’s ability to defeat security in Amsterdam contributed to the deployment of full-body scanners at US airports.
The Transportation Security Administration was using the scanners in some American cities at the time, but the attack accelerated their placement. There are now hundreds of the devices nationwide.
Abdulmutallab, whose attack took place on Christmas Day 2009, had graduated a year and a half earlier from University College London, where he was also president of the student Islamic Society.
He studied an engineering degree at UCL between 2005 and 2008, and was Islamic Society president from 2006 to 2007.
An independent panel set up by the university’s council concluded there was no evidence that he was radicalised while studying at the institution.