By Ed White and David Runk Associated Press
DETROIT — A Nigerian man pleaded not guilty today to charges that he tried to blow up a packed U.S. Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab said little during a federal court hearing that lasted less than five minutes. The 23-year-old, who wore a white T-shirt, tennis shoes and light olive pants, said “yes” in English when asked if understood the charges against him.
Authorities say Abdulmutallab was traveling from Amsterdam when he tried to destroy the Northwest Airlines plane carrying nearly 300 people by injecting chemicals into a package of explosives concealed in his underwear. The failed attack caused popping sounds and flames that passengers and crew rushed to extinguish.
A grand jury indicted Abdulmutallab on six charges earlier this week. The most severe carries up to life in prison — the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
During today’s hearing, Abdulmutallab stood at the podium along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel and defense attorney Miriam Siefer and answered a few questions from Magistrate Judge Mark A. Randon.
When the judge asked if he had taken any drugs or alcohol in past 24 hours, he answered, “some pain pills.” Siefer then said he was competent to understand the proceedings. Abdulmutallab, who is being held at a federal prison in Milan, Mich., had been treated at a hospital for burns after the attack.
His attorneys then waived the reading of the indictment, and the judge entered not guilty plea enter on his behalf.
Abdulmutallab was tackled by a passenger on board a packed U.S. jetliner on Christmas as flames shot from his clothes.
President Barack Obama calls him a “suspected terrorist.”
And an al-Qaida branch has taken responsibility.
Experts say that with so much evidence stacked against Abdulmutallab, his defense team is left with few options as the case moves forward.
Attorneys outside the case say the 23-year-old’s lawyers can challenge incriminating statements to the FBI, seek a mental-health exam for Abdulmutallab — and seriously consider a plea deal.
“This is not a case of mistaken identity or a whodunit. For the defense, it’s damage control,” said Joseph Niskar, a defense lawyer who was involved in a 2001 terrorism case in Detroit that fell apart for the government.
U.S. Marshals Service said Abdulmutallab arrived at the courthouse today in a dark Chevy SUV that drove into an underground entrance. The vehicle was led and followed by police cars with flashing lights and short siren blasts.
Outside the court, authorities set up metal barricades outside the courthouse and limiting foot traffic in the area. A protester stood holding a sign that read: “No U.S. Rights For Terrorists.” A few others gathered including a handful of local Muslim community members who held an American flag and a sign saying: “Not in the name of Islam.”
Maryam Uwais, a lawyer in Nigeria, and Mahmud Kazaure, a lawyer from Maryland, told The Associated Press at the courthouse that they were sent by Abdulmutallab’s family to observe today’s arraignment. Neither have a role in the case, but both spoke briefly with the suspect’s legal team. They declined to further comment.
Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, has said Abdulmutallab would be offered a plea deal in exchange for valuable information about his contacts in Yemen and elsewhere.
Detroit’s new U.S. attorney, Barbara McQuade, said no offer has been made yet.
“We’ll take the case one step at a time,” said McQuade, who handled national security cases before her promotion. “If he wants to plead guilty he has the right to do that. … We need to prepare as if this case is going to trial.”
Some attorneys, however, doubt that Abdulmutallab would really want to help the United States by cooperating with investigators.
“A person who wants to blow himself up in an airplane over Detroit is not looking to shave some time off in the big house,” said Lloyd Meyer, a former terrorism prosecutor at the Guantanamo Bay prison. “I have no doubt he will welcome the world stage of a federal courtroom. They want a public forum. They want the spotlight to show why they are holy warriors against the great Satan.”
Since the failed attack, security at airports in the U.S. and around the world has tightened as the Obama administration acknowledged government missteps in the near-catastrophe.
Obama said Thursday that the government had the information that might have prevented the botched attack but failed to piece it together. He announced about a dozen changes designed to fix that, including new terror watch list guidelines and wider and quicker distribution of intelligence reports.
Several experts pointed to the difficulties facing Siefer and her team as they defend Abdulmutallab. They didn’t get the case until he was charged the day after the failed attack. By then he had talked to investigators about training with al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.
“They may be able to challenge his statements, whether he was given Miranda rights,” said Keith Corbett, a former organized-crime prosecutor in Detroit. But beyond any incriminating words, “you still have a large number of witnesses who saw things in a confined space. That’s going to pose a serious problem to the defense.”
Indeed, with the syringe, the fire, explosive material, burns and other evidence, “it’s almost a classic smoking gun case — a smoking pants case,” Steingold said.
In announcing the indictment Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the investigation already had produced “valuable intelligence” about the failed attack.
But the more time that elapses, the less valuable his information could be for any plea deal, Corbett said.
“If he cuts a deal in six months, he’s had no contact (with foreign allies) for six months. The answer lies in what information he has, like names, training facilities,” Corbett said. “For any significant reduction in his sentence, he would have to be in a position of giving the government what it really wants.”