Christmas Plane Attack Case Will Test Defense

Umar Farouk 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 Qaeda branch has taken responsibility.

The young Nigerian man arrived at federal court in Detroit Friday for his arraignment on charges that he failed to detonate a chemical-laden explosive on the Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight. U.S. Marshals Service said Abdulmutallab was in a dark Chevy SUV that drove into an underground entrance. Outside the courthouse, 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 not guilty plea was entered on behalf of Abdulmutallab in connection to the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt.

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.

A federal grand jury indicted Abdulmutallab this week on six charges, including one that could put him away for life: the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction to kill nearly 300 people. That weapon, according to the government, was an explosive hidden under his clothing. The FBI says Abdulmutallab tried to detonate it with a syringe of chemicals.

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.

On Thursday, Obama said anew 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.

On Sunday, Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said Abdulmutallab would be offered a plea deal in exchange for valuable information about his contacts in Yemen and elsewhere.

Abdulmutallab's lawyers did not return messages from The Associated Press seeking comment, and 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."

Abdulmutallab's defense is being handled by Detroit federal defenders including the head of the office, Miriam Siefer, a highly regarded lawyer.

"I don't know if they would find a lawyer who would do a better job," said longtime local defense attorney David Steingold.

But Abdulmutallab's lawyers 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 Qaeda 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."