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Underwear Bomber Trial To Begin In Detroit


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Today, opening statements are scheduled for a man who became instantly famous in the Christmas season in 2009. Omar Farouk Abdulmutallub is a young Nigerian. He's accused of attempting to bring down an airliner bound for Detroit with explosives in his underwear.

MONTAGNE: Besides the obvious question of his guilt or innocence, today's trial raises many questions about how the government handles terrorism cases and alleged terrorists.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here with the latest. And, Dina, remind us of the details in this case.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, Abdulmutallab is the 24-year-old son of a prominent Nigerian banker. And two Christmases ago, he boarded a plane in Amsterdam with these explosives in his underwear. And just before the plane was about to land in Detroit, he allegedly tried to ignite those explosives to blow up the plane. Passengers tackled him when the flames started to come from the explosives and the plot was foiled.

Now, Abdulmutallab allegedly told the FBI when they arrested him that he was working for al-Qaida, and specifically was sent to the U.S. by this al-Qaida spiritual leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed last month in that Yemen drone attack.

So while Abdulmutallab is certainly at the center of this trial, Awlaki is going to play a big role too, because the Obama administration hasn't released any evidence, publicly, that he's actually a terrorist and yet he was killed by a drone strike last month in Yemen.

MONTAGNE: Well, as you just said, Awlaki was this American-born radical imam killed by a drone strike. So is this case one reason that he was put on the U.S. target list?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, exactly. Right after the Christmas Day attempted bombing, the U.S. put Awlaki on that list and we've never seen exactly why. There was a secret memo written explaining the legal reasoning for putting him on the list, in the spring of 2010 - but that's never been made public either. So law enforcement officials only have said that Awlaki was behind this Christmas Day plot, and had a link to Abdulmutallab, but that evidence has never been presented in court.

And this trial could provide the first opportunity to do that. And also will provide a bit of a window into the recruitment process, as well. Because we know Abdulmutallab was probably radicalized when he was in London at university. We understand that he discovered Awlaki's sermons at that time and allegedly became an acolyte, of sorts, to Awlaki. So the trial might provide more detail about that.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's turn back to that trial in Detroit. Abdulmutallab has decided to represent himself in this trial?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, he fired his legal team about a year ago and has what the court calls a legal advisor. The big question was whether Abdulmutallab was going to give the opening arguments himself. And if he was going to do that he had to contact the court last week and say so. And we understand that, in fact, he has decided to have his legal advisor, a man named Anthony Chambers, provide the opening statement instead.

You know, there've already been some outbursts from Abdulmutallab during the jury selection process. He came in and shouted Osama is alive, meaning Osama bin Laden. And then after the Awlaki killing, he shouted that Awlaki was alive too. So it'll be interesting to see whether he takes the time in court to give speeches or is more passive than that.

MONTAGNE: And how long is the trial expected to last?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's expected to last four weeks. And one of the big issues is that Abdulmutallab wasn't read his rights right away. And a lot of what he told FBI agents about his al-Qaida links was said while he was either on the way to the hospital to take care of these massive burns he had, or in the hospital while he was being treated.

So I expect that's going to be one line of defense. That said, he's talked to a judge and lawyers about what it would mean to plead guilty. So it's possible he may try to get a plea deal. But for now, it seems like the trial is going to going ahead.

MONTAGNE: Dina, thanks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR counter-terrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.