What We've Learned About Terror Trials From the Underwear Bomber
It was supposed to be the second full day in federal court for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The so-called "Christmas Day bomber" aka "The Underwear Bomber" faced eight charges, including attempted murder on an aircraft.
But, acting as his own attorney, Abdulmutallab surprised many Wednesday by pleading guilty. He faces a maximum possible sentence of life without parole.
The case never was a “whodunit,” nor was there ever a question of why he did what he attempted to do. A guilty plea in this case simply means that the public will not see, in full detail, the extent of the government’s overwhelming evidence.
Also lacking suspense was what the now-convicted terrorist said in court during his discussion and guilty plea with U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds.
Like other Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists who were caught and pleaded guilty, Abdulmutallab boasted of his allegiance to Jihad, and explained that his actions were in “retaliation for U.S. support of Israel.” He admitted that he conspired with at least one other person, whom he did not name in open court, to bomb the Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit in December 2009.
Tuesday, on the opening day of trial, the prosecutor played a video message from the defendant to fellow Muslims. In it, he denounced the United States, describing it as the “enemy [who] is in your land along with the Jewish and Christian armies.” The prosecutor also stated that the evidence at trial would show that the defendant was inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American cleric who joined Al Qaeda and was killed recently by a U.S. drone strike.
The defendant warned those in court that if the “U.S. continues to kill and support those who kill Muslims,” that the United States will “await a great calamity,” and that God will “strike them directly with his will.”
His guilty plea and possible life sentence will cause some who want all terrorism trials to be conducted in federal courts to claim victory. They will say, as they have before, that this case proves once and for all that our federal courts can handle terrorism trials, and that we should use federal courts exclusively for terrorism trials. That opinion, however, has fortunately been rejected by both the Bush and Obama administrations, and for good reason.
Others will say that people like Abdulmutallab should only been tried in a military commission. That opinion, too, has fortunately been rejected by the Bush and Obama administrations.
What we have learned, if anything, in the last 10 years it is that the president--any president--must have all lawful tools available to him during wartime. He must have the flexibility to use the most appropriate tool at any given time. In this case, the defendant was tried in the right venue, with a just result.
Charles D. "Cully" Stimson is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs (2006-07).