A Quick and Unsurprising Guilty Plea for the Underwear Bomber

Another al-Qaeda suspect gives up in federal court, facing up to life in prison without parole.


Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called "Underwear Bomber," abruptly ended his own federal trial in Detroit Wednesday morning by announcing in open court through his attorney that he would plead guilty to the charges against him. The move came just one day after opening statements and with prosecutors geared up to present an overwhelming case against the 24-year-old Nigerian who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on December 25, 2009.

The jury's quick work now is done. The case now will move to a sentencing phase. Because no one was killed in the abortive attempt, the death penalty is not (and never was) a sentencing option. However, Abdulmutallab faces the possibility of a life sentence without parole in a federal prison, probably the "Supermax" facility in Florence, Colorado. There he would join other convicted terrorists, men like Richard Reid, Theodore Kaczynski, Ramzi Yousef, and Terry Nichols.

The sudden end to the high-profile trial marks a major victory for the White House and the Justice Department, which have been criticized by lawmakers of both parties for allowing terror suspects to be tried in federal court. Here is the piece I wrote nine days ago previewing the trial, in which I explored some of the political points at stake in the case. Whether it now becomes easier for the feds to bring al-Qaeda suspects back to trial in civilian courts is a question sure to be raised by the Obama administration. Whether Congress answers is another matter.

Indeed, shortly after the guilty pleas were accepted by U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, Attorney General Eric Holder issued the following statement:

Contrary to what some have claimed, today's plea removes any doubt that our courts are one of the most effective tools we have to fight terrorisma and keep the American people safe. Our priority in this case was to ensure that we arrested a man who tried to do us harm, that we collected actionable intelligence from him and that we prosecuted him in a way that was consistent with our rule of law.

We will continue to be aggressive in our fight against terrorism and those who target us, and we will let results, not rhetoric, guide our actions. 



Though dramatic, the guilty pleas are not necessarily surprising. The feds were prepared to bring before jurors many of the witnesses from the plane, who saw Abdulmutallab try to light his pants on fire. In fact, the only witness to testify in the trial, Mike Zantow, told jurors Tuesday that a passenger next to Abdulmutallab on the flight said to the suspect at the time of the incident: "Hey, Dude, your pants are on fire."

Moreover, prosecutors were poised to share with jurors a confession and boastful Al Qaeda statements they say Abdulmutallab made shortly after his arrest. Against this strong evidence, the defendant had virtually no answers, at least no legally recognizable answers that U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds would have been willing to allow him to present.

This is not the first time that an al-Qaeda defendant has represented himself and then pleaded guilty in federal court. Zacarias Moussaoui, the once-upon-a-time "20th hijacker" of 9/11, took this same route in 2005. He was ultimately sentenced to life in prison by a jury in Alexandria, Virginia. And Khalid Sheik Mohammed himself, the mastermind of the deadly attacks, expressed his own willingness to represent himself and plead guilty during preliminary hearings several years ago before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Image: Reuters

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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