DETROIT — The trial of a young African accused of trying to bring down an airliner near Detroit with a bomb in his underwear is no whodunit. Prosecutors have his hospital-bed confession, dozens of witnesses, remnants of the explosive and an al-Qaida video featuring the 24-year-old explaining his suicide mission.
Nonetheless, the prosecution of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab carries high stakes. His failed attack was the first act of terrorism in the U.S. during the Obama administration, and it could have implications in the debate over whether terrorism suspects should be tried in civilian or military courts.
The case, which starts today with jury selection, also revealed the rise of a dangerous al-Qaida affiliate and the growing influence of a radical Islamic cleric, who was killed by a CIA-U.S. military strike only last week.
Abdulmutallab, a well-educated Nigerian from an upper-class family who has pleaded not guilty, was directed by American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and said he wanted to become a martyr on Christmas 2009 when he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Amsterdam with nearly 300 passengers and crew, according to the government.
A conviction on multiple charges could bolster the argument that suspected terrorists should be prosecuted through civilian courts, not military proceedings. Abdulmutallab faces eight charges, including conspiracy to commit terrorism and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.