DETROIT – Moments before he attempted to bring down an American jetliner, a young Nigerian man on a mission for Al Qaeda retreated to the plane's lavatory for a long cleansing ritual to prepare for death, prosecutors told jurors Tuesday.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab prayed, washed himself, brushed his teeth and put on perfume, then returned to his seat and tried to detonate a bomb in his underwear, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel said in his opening statement at the start of the man's trial.
Virtually everyone else aboard the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight had holiday plans back on Christmas Day 2009, but Abdulmutallab believed his calling was martyrdom, Turkel said.
In the plane's bathroom, "he was engaging in rituals. He was preparing to die and enter heaven," the prosecutor said.
Abdulmutallab's attorney, Anthony Chambers, surprised the courtroom when he announced he would save his opening statement until later in the trial. That means the jury will not hear any hint of the defense case, possibly for weeks, while the government calls a parade of witnesses.
Technically, Abdulmutallab is representing himself, but he is relying on Chambers as standby counsel. Chambers persuaded him just last week to let him address the jury at the start of trial.
Much of what Tukel described was already known from eyewitness accounts, pretrial testimony and government statements.
But the prosecutor offered some new details from inside Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which had 290 people aboard from 26 countries. He focused on the moments after Abdulmutallab's long bathroom break, when he threw a blanket over himself and allegedly attempted to detonate a bomb shortly before the plane landed.
Abdulmutallab pushed a syringe plunger into the chemical bomb in his underwear, an action that produced a loud "pop" sound, followed by flames and smoke, the prosecutor said.
"Then all hell broke loose. While the fireball was on him, the defendant sat there. He didn't move. He was expressionless. He was completely blank," Tukel said.
Passengers put out the fire and pulled Abdulmutallab up the aisle into the cabin's first-class section, where he sat with a blanket and without shoes and pants.
The trial's first witness, Mike Zantow of Madison, Wis., said he joined the effort and heard another passenger tell Abdulmutallab, "Hey, dude, your pants are on fire."
Abdulmutallab was silent at first but then opened up to virtually anyone: a flight attendant, customs officers who removed him from the plane, emergency medical personnel and, finally, FBI agents at a hospital where he was treated for serious burns to his groin, Tukel said.
He said the bomb was made without metal to get past airport security but contained a dangerous powder chemical, later determined to be PETN that was obtained in Yemen about three weeks earlier, Tukel said.
And when a customs officer asked him his affiliation, Abdulmutallab didn't flinch: Al Qaeda, he replied, according to the prosecutor.
Tukel explained how Abdulmutallab, the 24-year-old son of a wealthy African banker, had an opportunity to "do anything he wanted in life" but chose to be influenced by radical Muslims and take the path of "violent jihad."
During the prosecution's opening statement, Abdulmutallab sat quietly at the defense table with his hands folded under his chin. He wore a black skull cap and a dashiki, an African gown with a decorated deep V-neck.
Tukel showed jurors a snippet of a "martyrdom video" that will be aired during trial. It shows Abdulmutallab, before the trip to the U.S., declaring in Arabic: "Unless you go forth in jihad (Allah) will punish you with a grievous penalty."
Passenger Alain Ghonda of Silver Spring, Md., listened from the courtroom gallery and concluded the plot "was worse than we thought."
"Seeing the defendant come in gave me a headache, just to see him," Ghonda said. "I was saddened by the whole thing."