Umar Faouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a packed US-bound plane on Christmas Day, was due to appear in court for the first time yesterday, a day after Barack Obama announced a raft of measures to close gaps in security. Abdulmutallab was expected in a federal court in Detroit late last night for the arraignment hearing, where formal charges are read and the defendant is expected to enter a plea. Abdulmutallab was indicted on six charges last week, including the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which on its own can warrant a life sentence.
Security was tight around the court house, with US marshals helping local police. Only 77 people will be allowed into the courtroom, and many of those seats are expected to go to reporters who have flown in from around the nation and the world. No computers, cell phones or other electronic devices will be allowed in the courthouse for fear they can be used to conceal explosives or detonate a bomb.
Members of the local Nigerian community as well as American-Muslims planned to rally outside the courthouse in support of the US government. "Everybody here is concerned about these unfortunate acts and these unfortunate events because they send the wrong message," Nasser Muhsin, a member of the American Muslim Society in Dearborn, Michigan, told the Associated Press. "They put the wrong definition of Islam in people's minds, and that's what we are concerned about."
In court, with evidence stacked against him, Abdulmutallab's lawyers have few options and may "seriously consider" a plea deal, experts told the Associated Press. "This is not a case of mistaken identity or a whodunit. For the defence, it's damage control," Joseph Niskar, a defence lawyer who was involved in a 2001 terrorism case in Detroit that fell apart for the government, told the agency. John Brennan, Mr Obama's counterterrorism adviser, has said Abdulmutallab would be offered a plea deal in exchange for valuable information about his contacts in Yemen and elsewhere.
"This investigation is fast-paced, global and ongoing, and it has already yielded valuable intelligence that we will follow wherever it leads," said Eric Holder, the US attorney general. "Anyone we find responsible for this alleged attack will be brought to justice using every tool - military or judicial - available to our government." The court appearance followed an admission from Mr Obama that security agencies did not "properly connect and understand" the data that was available on Abdulmutallab, which could have thwarted the attempted attack.
Mr Obama announced sweeping changes designed to stop a similar intelligence failure in the future, but did not hold any individuals accountable for the blunders, saying "the buck stops with me". "I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer," said Mr Obama. "As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people, and when the system fails, it is my responsibility."
A warning from Abdulmutallab's father to the US that his son may have been involved with extremists in Yemen was not linked to reports of a Nigerian planning to attack the US, and a search to check whether Abdulmutallab held a visa for the US came up negative due to a misspelling of his name. The changes to security procedures will include a 48-hour deadline for the dissemination of information on a suspected terrorist, revoking visas when questions arise about a certain individual and making it more difficult for those with their names on warning lists to obtain a visa.
Mr Obama has been accused by Republicans of underestimating the threat to the US from terrorist groups, and tried to quash that criticism with strong words. "We are at war against al Qa'eda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again," Mr Obama said. "We will do whatever it takes to defeat them."
If found guilty, the sentences against Abdulmultallab could run to hundreds of years. Other charges include attempted murder, wilful attempt to destroy an aircraft and the placing of a destructive device on an aircraft, in this case the explosive device sewn into Abdulmutallab's underwear which he allegedly tried to detonate with a syringe full of liquid. All three charges carry penalties of up to 20 years in jail.
He also faces charges for the use of a firearm or destructive device during a violent crime, and the possession of a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime, each carrying a mandatory consecutive 30 years in prison. firstname.lastname@example.org