Underwear Bomber Gets Life in Prison—and Loses the Argument, Too

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When would-be terrorists speak in court, they reveal themselves to be criminals, not masterminds.

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In a courtroom sketch, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man who tried blowing up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009 is sentenced to life in prison / AP Images

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, otherwise known to the world as the "Underwear Bomber," was sentenced to life in prison Thursday afternoon for trying to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. He thus becomes another one of the hundreds of terror suspects who have been successfully prosecuted in America's federal civilian courts since September 11, 2001 -- a grace note the Justice Department surely will want us to remember today.

It doesn't matter what Abdulmutallab said or didn't say when the public chapter of his life ended in a federal courtroom in Detroit. And, aside from her pronouncement of the sentence itself, it doesn't really matter what U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds said either. From men like Abdulmutallab, we've heard this song and dance before. And nothing Judge Edmunds was going to say could ever top what U.S. District Judge William Young said at sentencing to the so-called "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, a little over nine years ago.

But it's interesting to hear what some of Abdulmutallab's potential victims were willing to say on the eve of sentencing for the man who tried two years ago to blow them all out of the sky with a bomb hidden in his crotch. Not just interesting, mind you, but sad and sweet, wrenching and wonderful, all at the same time. For example, here's how one such person described herself to the Associated Press:

"I've become bolder. I've become stronger," said passenger Shama Chopra, 56, of Montreal, who plans to speak in court. She ran unsuccessfully for the Canadian Parliament in 2011, a race she couldn't have imagined joining years ago. "I don't have to feel weak," Chopra said in an interview Wednesday. "I don't have to be scared of anything. God has given me a second chance to live."

This is sad because it reminds us of all the victims of terrorism, the needless casualties, and what they might have done with their lives if given a second chance. But it is sweet because it reminds us that Abdulmutallab's failure was a success story for everyone else on that plane. The defendant said that his suicide mission was God's will. And yet here is one of his would-be victims, very much alive, thanking God for giving her a second chance to live.

How does Al Qaeda answer that? How can religious-based terrorism answer that? Here's how. The Christian Science Monitor this morning quoted Simon Perry, a criminologist "who has studied Muslim suicide bombers" and whose written conclusions formed one of the bases for the government's request that Abdulmutallab be sent away for life. From the Monitor:

[Perry] says that based on Abdulmutallab's statements to the FBI he is still likely to try to carry out a future martyrdom mission if given a chance. AbdulMutallab "claims that the fact that the bomb did not explode was merely evidence that it was not his time to die. He did not believe that he had failed to deploy the device properly," Perry said. Instead, Abdulmutallab "believes that the outcome of his mission was in God's hands."

Perry said Abdulmutallab believes that God decided that he was not pure enough for martyrdom and that he must wait patiently for God's purification. "The failed martyrdom mission, in his mind, is no more than a possible test of patience imposed on him by God," Perry said. "One can interpret this rhetoric as meaning that he has not given up on aspirations to martyrdom."

I'm certainly no theologian -- and no terrorism expert, either. But I know a lame argument when I see one. The suicide bomber's failure was not his own, but rather a part of God's plan? God wanted to test his patience by putting him on a plane with a bomb in his pants that wouldn't or couldn't go off, thus ensuring that he would spend the rest of his life in a tiny prison cell without communication to the outside world? I like Chopra's God better, don't you?

Indeed, Abdulmutallab would have been more consistent if he had claimed Thursday that God told him that he wanted air travelers everywhere to eventually have to undergo special security screening, for that is the greatest impact the young Nigerian has had on the world. He didn't murder anyone, but his crotch-bomb helped ensure that billions of people would eventually be annoyed, or worse, when they have to travel by plane. Small beer for a martyr, no?

The baffling logic. The excuses. The shifting versions. The religious rootlessness. We've heard it all before: from Moussaoui in Virginia in 2006, from Reid in Massachusetts in 2003, and now from Abdulmutallab in Michigan. The names change, and the terrorism charges do, too, but the song remains the same. When these guys are caught, when they talk in court, they reveal themselves to be men, not monsters -- criminals, not masterminds or prophets.    

So now Abdulmutallab will be shuttled off by the Bureau of Prisons -- likely to the "Supermax" prison near Florence, Colorado. There, he will join, in 23-hour-a-day lock-down, terrorists like Ramzi Yousef, Terry Nichols, Zacarias Moussaoui, Theodore Kaczynski and, of course, Reid himself. "Today is a day of victory," Abdulmutallab was quoted as saying in court Thursday. Mark those words -- because you almost certainly won't ever hear from this guy again.

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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, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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