Recent Arrest, Detention and Charging of Attempted Airplane Bomber Illustrate Fed’s Ability to Handle Terror Suspects in Civilian Courts

By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair


Two recent decisions by President Obama’s administration has drawn intense criticism designed to manipulate the natural fear Americans have of terrorism since 9/11: the decision to try the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), and his co-conspirators, in a New York federal civilian court and the decision to transfer “terror suspects” currently housed at the U.S. detention facility (“Gitmo”) in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Illinois.


The critics, fueled primarily by a Republican political agenda to undermine the Obama administration and regain future control of the White House and Congress, have charged that confining and trying terror suspects on American soil would somehow endanger the American public with future terror attacks. If these charges were not so politically motivated and so readily accepted by many Americans, who believe every word launched out of the mouths of conservative wing nuts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, they could be casually dismissed laughably ludicrous.


The Christmas Day attempted terror attack on a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight by 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who allegedly attempted to detonate the high explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) as the plane approached the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport for landing underscores this point. The Abdulmutallab terror attack was thwarted because his detonator either malfunctioned, or he did not correctly use it, and by the heroic efforts of fellow passengers who attacked and subdued the terrorist before he could fulfill his objective: to blow up an American plane on American soil on Christmas Day.


This attempted terror attack illustrate precisely why the politically-motivated criticisms of the decision to try KSM in federal civilian court and to house Gitmo prisoners in a super-max federal penal facility are in fact so wrong-headed. Abdulmutallab was charged in federal district court the day after Christmas. The United States Justice Department issued the following “press release” entitled “Nigerian National Charged with Attempting to Destroy Northwest Airlines Aircraft:”


“A 23-year-old Nigerian man was charged in a federal criminal complaint today with attempting to destroy a Northwest Airlines aircraft on its final approach to Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Christmas day, and with placing a destructive device on the aircraft.


“According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, a Nigerian national, boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam, Netherlands on December 24, 2009 and had a device attached to his body. As the flight was approaching Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Abdulmutallab set off the device, which resulted in a fire and what appears to have been an explosion. Abdulmutallab was then subdued and restrained by the passengers and flight crew. The airplane landed shortly thereafter, and he was taken into custody by Customs and Border Patrol officers.


“A preliminary FBI analysis found that the device contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, a high explosive. Further analysis is ongoing. In addition, FBI agents recovered what appear to be the remnants of the syringe from the vicinity of Abdulmutallab’s seat, believed to have been part of the device.


“’This alleged attack on a U.S. airplane on Christmas Day shows that we must remain vigilant in the fight against terrorism at all times,’ Attorney General Eric Holder said. ‘Had this alleged plot to destroy an airplane been successful, scores of innocent people would have been killed or injured. We will continue to investigate this matter vigorously, and we will use all measures available to our government to ensure that anyone responsible for this attempted attack is brought to justice.’

“Adbulmutallab required medical treatment, and was transported to the University of Michigan Medical Center after the plane landed. He will make his initial court appearance later today.


“Interviews of all the passengers and crew of Flight 254 revealed that prior to the incident, Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for approximately twenty minutes, according to the affidavit. Upon returning to his seat, Abdulmutallab stated that this stomach was upset, and he pulled a blanket over himself. Passengers then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers, smelled an odor, and some observed Abdulmutallab’s pants leg and the wall of the airplane on fire.



Passengers and crew then subdued Abdulmutallab and used blankets and fire extinguishers to put out the flames. Passengers reported that Abdulmutallab was calm and lucid throughout. One flight attendant asked him what he had had in his pocket, and he replied ‘explosive device.’


“These prosecutions are being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, with assistance from the Counterterrorism Section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.


“The investigation is being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Customs and Border Protection, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.


“The public is reminded that criminal complaints contain mere allegations and a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”


Interestingly, not one Republican lawmaker or any conservative wing nut talk show host criticized the decision to file criminal charges against Abdulmutallab in federal civilian court, to provide him with the best possible medical care at the University of Michigan Medical Center, or to eventually house him in a federal detention facility pending his trial.


What is the difference between Khalid Sheihk Mohammed and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab? Nothing. Both have been charged with acts of terrorism against the United States. Individuals who have been charged with acts of terror against the United States should naturally be tried in federal civilian court. That is precisely what happened to “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and his accomplice Saajid Badat who were convicted respectively in American federal courts in 2003 and 2005 following Reid’s botched attempt to blow up an American Airlines flight in 2001 with an explosive device hidden in his shoe.

And what is the difference between housing Abdulmutallab in a maximum security federal detention facility pending his trial and housing “terror suspects” at the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois? They are all considered “terror suspects” until proven guilty in an American court. The U.S. Justice Department’s own press release made this point clear in the Abdulmutallab case. The only difference beteen Abdulmutallab and the Gitmo terror suspects is that the government had enough evidence to formally charge him in a criminal complaint. There is not even enough evidence against some of the Gitmo “terror suspects” to bring a criminal complaint against them, much less a formal indictment.


Federal investigators have already established some connection between al Qaeda operatives in Yemen and Abdulmutallab; thus, he would have to be considered as “dangerous” and as much a “threat to national security” as KSM or any of the other Gitmo “terror suspects.” So why aren’t Republicans like Sen. Mitch McConnell, and Republican Party spokesmen like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, now demanding that Abdulmutallab be removed from American soil, housed at Gitmo, and tried before a military tribunal? Because they would be laughed off the public stage as buffoons if they did.


We have said all along that the criticism of the decisions to try KSM in federal civilian court and to close Gitmo was being fueled by partisan politics. The attempted terror attack by Abdulmutallab and the total lack of criticism for the Government’s response to that attack clearly support our charge that many irresponsible individuals in this country are attempting to politicize the “war on terrorism” for Machiavellian political gain.



By: Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair