A federal judge in the US has sentenced a Nigerian man to life in prison for attempting to blow up a US airliner bound for Detroit in December 2009.
Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, 25, who prosecutors said was linked to al-Qaeda, had pleaded guilty to eight charges, including the attempted murder of the 289 people on board the Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight 253.
“This was an act of terrorism that cannot be quibbled with,” said US district judge Nancy Edmunds, who imposed the maximum sentence allowed during the hearing on Thursday.
Abdulmuttalab showed little emotion as the judge handed down the sentence.
“The defendant has stated and it is clear that he has enormous motivation to carry out another terrorist attack,” Edmunds said of Abdulmuttalab, who had unsuccessfully attempted to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear while on board the flight three years ago.
The botched Christmas Day attack, which prosecutors said was hatched by Anwar al-Awlaki, an allegedly al-Qaeda-linked cleric killed by a US missile strike in Yemen last year, sparked global alarm and caused the US to tighten both airport screening systems and no-fly lists.
“This court has no ability to control the defendant’s motivation, which does appear to be unchanged; however I can control the defendant’s opportunity to carry out those actions,” Edmunds said.
Abdulmuttalab had fired his lawyers and chosen to represent himself in the high-profile case. During comments made to the court during Thursday’s hearing, he said that the “true crime” was US foreign policy.
“Today is a day of victory and God is great,” he said in a brief statement. “In quick response to some of the things that have been said, I say my life and the lives of Muslims have also changed due to the attacks on innocent civilians.”
“The mujahadeen are proud to kill in the name of God and that is exactly what God told us to do in the Quran,” he said.
None of Abdulmutallab’s relatives attended the sentencing, but Anthony Chambers, Abdulmutallab’s standby counsel, gave reporters a statement by the family saying they hoped the US justice department would review the life sentence.
“We are grateful to God that the unfortunate incident of that date did not result in any injury or death,” the family said.
Cathleen Corken, the prosecutor in the case, told the court ahead of sentencing that life in prison was appropriate.
Corken said Abdulmuttalab “boarded Flight 253 with a cold-blooded calculated plan to murder everyone on it,” and would have carried it out if the bomb had detonated.
Despite strict security measures at airports following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Abdulmuttalab was able to smuggle 76 grams of Pentaerythritol tetranitrate, an explosive, on board the flight. His bomb, however, failed to detonate, and only caused a fire as the plane began its descent into Detroit from Amsterdam.
Passengers and crew members restrained Abdulmuttalab and extinguish the fire, allowing the pilots to safely land the plane.
Several of the intended victims of the attack were given the opportunity to speak during Thursday’s hearing.
“I’ve never been that scared in my life and I hope never to be scared like that again,” said Lori Haskell, one of those on the flight.
“For weeks after the incident I thought I was in a state of shock… I am thankful I’m still alive but what the defendant did caused lifetime harm to me and everyone else on that plane.”
The involvement of Awlaki came to light through a prosecutor’s memo made public on Friday, which argued for a stiff sentence to be applied.
Abdulmuttalab told investigators that he had been following Awlaki online for years and travelled to Yemen in August 2009 to seek out the US-born cleric.
He was driven through the desert to Awlaki’s home after tracking down his mobile phone number through visits to mosques and then writing to him about his desire to “become involved in jihad,” the memo said.
He stayed with the cleric for three days, and was then taken to see a bomb-maker after he accepted the mission.
Abdulmuttalab then spent two weeks at a training camp where he “received instruction in weapons and indoctrination in jihad” and then Awlaki hired a “professional film crew” to shoot Abdulmutallab’s five-minute martyrdom video.