Revelations from the underwear bomber trial
October 14th, 2011
08:13 AM ET

Revelations from the underwear bomber trial

By Paul Cruickshank, CNN Terrorism Analyst

The trial of "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab was cut dramatically short Wednesday when the Nigerian pleaded guilty to all the counts against him.

While the prosecution's opening statement contained significant new detail about the Christmas Day 2009 plot to blow up an airliner approaching Detroit - mainly from AbdulMutallab's initial 45-50 minute, tell-all interview with FBI agents at the hospital where he was treated after the attack - the short duration of the trial also left many questions unanswered, most notably the role played in the plot by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni militant cleric killed in a drone strike last month.

After his death, senior Obama administration officials emphasized al-Awlaki's operational role within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, labeling him the head of the group's external operations and stating he played a lead role in planning and directing the "underwear bomber" plot.

U.S officials had already warned about his growing role in terrorist planning earlier in the year. "Let me underscore, Awlaki is no mere messenger but someone integrally involved in lethal terrorist activities," State Department counterterrorism coordinator Dan Benjamin warned in April.

AQAP's opportunism

At trial, it was revealed that AbdulMutallab only connected with al Qaeda operatives in and around August 2009 after he traveled to Yemen from the United Arab Emirates. In his initial interview with the FBI, he stated that the reason for going to Yemen was to become involved in violent jihad against the United States.

Little was revealed in court about how the son of a Nigerian multimillionaire, educated at elite schools and a top London University, was radicalized. After pleading guilty Wednesday, AbdulMutallab stated, "I was greatly inspired to participate in jihad by the lectures of the great and rightly guided mujahideen who is alive, Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki."

While trying to make contact with AQAP, he told the FBI he was introduced in a mosque to an operative named Abu Tarak, who became his principal handler.

According to AbdulMutallab, the two frequently discussed ways to attack the United States. In late November Abu Tarak enlisted AbdulMutallab in AQAP's plan to attack an American airliner. The speed of his recruitment illustrated AQAP's opportunism. As noted by the prosecution, AbdulMutallab was the perfect recruit - a westernized English speaker with a visa to the United States. The plot progressed with astonishing speed after he agreed to participate.

Hands-on master bomb maker

After agreeing to the operation, AbdulMuttallab told the FBI he met with the Saudi bomb maker responsible for building the underwear device, who instructed him how to detonate it. Although the name of the bomb maker was not named in court, U.S. authorities believe he is Ibrahim al-Asiri, a 29-year-old Saudi, who has developed a genius for bomb design but remains a shadowy figure. Before moving to Yemen four years ago, al-Asiri was part of an al Qaeda-affiliated cell in Saudi Arabia targeting oil facilities, according to U.S. authorities.

As well as constructing the underwear device, U.S. authorities believe al Asiri built the "printer-bomb" devices al Qaeda attempted to explode aboard cargo jets over the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in October 2010. Both devices contained a main charge of PETN, a white powdery explosive which conventional "single beam" X-Ray machines are rarely able to detect. In 2009, al-Asiri fitted out his own brother - Abdullah al-Asiri - with a PETN-based underwear bomb to kill Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a top Saudi security official. The device killed his brother instantly, but failed to kill its target. U.S. and Yemeni officials believe al-Asiri is still at large in Yemen. There is arguably no al Qaeda figure anywhere in the world who currently poses more of a threat to the United States.

At trial, it was revealed the bomb maker's fingerprints were found on tape used to hold together the underwear device. "When the FBI took that tape off, they found fingerprints on the inside, on the sticky part in a place where only the person who made the bomb could have done it," the prosecution stated.

Three weeks wearing explosive underwear

The Nigerian also received training in how to detonate the device from his handler Abu Tarak, who told him that the device would make the plane crash, killing everybody on board. AbdulMutallab was delivered the device by Abu Tarak on December 6 or 7, 2009, with instructions that he target a U.S. passenger jet over U.S. soil. After recording a martyrdom video, AbdulMutallab flew from Yemen to Djibouti, then to Ethiopia and Ghana and then on to Nigeria before booking a ticket to the United States from Amsterdam. The final leg was Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit. According to the prosecution, the roundabout journey was designed to cover the defendant's tracks because of AQAP's increasing presence in Yemen. The only reason he made a brief transit through Nigeria was because Ghana at the time prevented non-citizens from taking such intercontinental flights. AbdulMutallab revealed to the FBI in his initial interview that he wore the underwear device on every leg of his almost three-week journey, and he forbade maids from cleaning his hotel rooms out of fear his device would be discovered.

Most of the bomb worked

The trial revealed new details about the design of the device, which was made with no metal parts in order to evade airport metal detectors. A specially sewn pouch in his underwear contained the main PETN explosive charge which was connected to a TATP detonator - the same primary explosive Najibullah Zazi planned to use in a plot to blow up subway cars in New York in September 2009 and shoe bomber Richard Reid attempted to detonate on a transatlantic flight heading to Los Angeles in December 2001, according to authorities. The main explosive charge in Reid's device also was PETN.

The initiation for the device was a syringe connected to his underwear filled with two easily obtainable chemicals - potassium permanganate and ethylene glycol (a chemical found in antifreeze) which catch fire when mixed. As the plane made its final approach to Detroit, AbdulMutallab returned from the washroom in which he had prepared himself for death, put a blanket over himself, lowered his underwear, and plunged the syringe, mixing the two chemicals and setting them afire. The loud pop passengers heard was likely the flame melting and bursting the syringe, a Western explosives expert told CNN. According to the prosecution, this flame in turn successfully detonated the TATP, but the PETN main charge was not detonated. Instead, some of the PETN started burning, creating a fireball on AbdulMutallab's lap. "While that fireball was on him, the defendant sat there. He didn't move. He was expressionless. He was completely blank," the prosecution stated.

Those on-board the plane may have been very lucky. PETN can be easily detonated by relatively small amounts of primary explosives such as TATP, according to the Western explosive expert, made aware of details on the bomb design revealed Tuesday in court. The expert told CNN that one of the likeliest explanations for the failure of the underwear device to fully detonate was the wear and tear on the device during AbdulMutallab's transit through Africa. "The fact he was wearing it so long could have interfered with its proper functioning, either by desensitizing the main charge or disrupting the mechanics of the bomb," the expert told CNN.

Device more powerful than first reported

Counterterrorism sources initially stated that the assumption was the underwear device may have contained around 80 grams of PETN. At trial it was revealed that about 76 grams of PETN did not burn and was recovered by authorities from the floor of the plane near his seat. And the prosecution revealed that FBI bomb experts were later able to extrapolate from the size of the pouch in AbdulMutallab's underwear that the device carried 200 grams of PETN.

The prosecution, while making clear that the device would likely have endangered the safety of the aircraft, did not state whether this quantity would have been enough to bring down an aircraft if detonated at a window seat above the wing - the position of AbdulMutallab's 19A seat on the Airbus A330. British authorities have stated that the 400 grams of PETN hidden inside a printer cartridge in the air cargo bombing attempt last October had the potential to bring down a plane.

Ability to communicate with handlers

The trial revealed that the FBI found a slip of paper in AbdulMutallab's shoes on which was written an encryption code. According to the prosecution, this was a password for encryption software used by al Qaeda given to him so that he could communicate online with his handlers before boarding Flight 253. Such encrypted communications have in particular been associated with al-Awlaki. His group's increasing ingenuity in masking its communications was revealed in the UK trial of Rajib Karim, a British-Bangladeshi operative who was convicted of terrorism offenses in February 2011.The London court heard how in early 2010 Karim communicated in coded phrases from the United Kingdom with al-Awlaki in Yemen through deeply-encrypted word documents that were stealthily digitally compressed and then uploaded to pages of web hosting sites familiar to only the parties in question. The communications were relayed through Karim's brother in Yemen.

Troublingly, for Western counterterrorism officials, the documents were encrypted using software easily downloaded from the Internet. The messages appear not to have been intercepted by Western intelligence agencies. Even after finding the communications on Karim's website, it took British investigators a significant time to decipher the communications, only succeeding after they found the cipher codes and passwords in a file on his computer, illustrating how difficult it would be to track such messages in real-time. In late 2010 AQAP provided instructions in how to encrypt online communications in the second edition of its English language magazine Inspire.

What the trial did not reveal

No light was shed on al-Awlaki's operational role within AQAP in AbdulMutallab's trial, even though the Nigerian national began cooperating with investigators in January 2010, senior Obama administration officials told CNN. It's not clear how long that cooperation lasted.

By contrast, the Karim trial revealed al-Awlaki to be playing an increasingly operational role within al Qaeda.

"The question is, with the people you have, is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US?" al-Awlaki wrote in one of the communications to Karim just weeks after the failed underwear bombing attempt.

"Our highest priority is the United States. Anything there, even on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the United Kingdom, would be our choice," he also told Karim.


Filed under: Al Qaeda • Anwar al-Awlaki • AQAP • Intelligence • Nigeria • Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab • Yemen
soundoff (24 Responses)
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    March 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  3. amah jones

    While the CHILDREN of the NIGER DELTA region of NIGERIA struggled to eek out a living from the HIGHLY POLLUTED ENVIRONMENT they've been consigned to live in, OBSCENE SUMS of MONEY derived from selling NIGER DELTA'S OIL and GAS went to supporting this ARAB-LOVING MORON and BIN-LADEN wannabe, UMAR FAROUK ABDULMUTALLAB'S expensive EDUCATION in EUROPE and a life shaped by a blind devotion to HATE and... ISLAMIC fanaticism. Here is a young man whose contribution to the NIGERIAN ECONOMY is NIL;a BRAINWASHED FOOL who, by his misguided determination to destroy INNOCENT LIVES, made a cowardly, dastardly, and ignominous PACT with his most evilous master, the DEVIL. So, he kissed and swore total allegiance to SATANIC INSTITUTIONS. He gloated in his demonic desires to spill innocent blood, but forgot about the day of reconning and God's retribution. He forgot there would be sad and lonely days like these. I'm glad neither he nor anyone on board the airplane died. He didn't die because his BOMB failed to detonate, but HIS DICK GOT DAMAGED in the process. That means the 72 VIRGINS he was promised by BIN LADEN went UNCLAIMED. Too bad, he'll be spending the rest of his NATURAL LIFE BEHIND BARS and any dreams of sharing moments of perpetual BLISS with a VIRGIN will remain-–well, just dreams from now on. I pray other prisoners don't have lascivious designs on him as he wastes away in the penitentiary. A lifetime behind bars will hopefully give him sufficient time to consider penitence. May our Father in Heaven shine his infinite light of mercy upon him and, may he be steered away from the ways and beliefs of the wicked. Amen.

    February 16, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  4. deyjee

    ayo3423@yahoo.com

    February 12, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  5. Omoba

    Could not help but notice the continual use of the label "Nigerian". I did not see the same consistent highlighting of "British" for the shoe bomber. I guess it is easier to make groups we do not like synonimous with negative things while we excuse those we consider "ours". I am not bitter (yep, I am Nigerian); I have come to understand that these things are human. What beats me is when people are too narrow to see it and deny it. We humans are a fascinating study.

    October 17, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  6. Mr. Davidson

    It is very odd that none of the airline bombs mentioned have been detonated.They have no problem detonating suicide bombs every day.The reason is that PETN is usually employed in larger capacity devices such as car bombs because it requires a substantial detonator commonly a fraction of Dynamite stick attached to det cord in order to ignite or detonate flame itself will not suffice,especially in a small amount in a guys underwear ,or shoe and there was no compatible detonator in the printer also. Leading to the conclusion that the bombers may have been involved in a terror plot hoax perpetrated for media propaganda which we have seen several times and in the instance of the Times square car bomb plot/hoax where the wrong kind of non explosive fertilizer was implemented.The real bomb builders do not make mistakes ,their bombs work accurately ,all the time and are devastating.Lets hope the real guys don't get through while our government agents ply their fear and propaganda campaign.

    October 15, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  7. eo in C

    I'm happy he's young. Qiute a long vacation in jail, where he will wait for his 70 virgins who will definitely be prostitutes when he arrives in hell.

    October 14, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  8. Pig Profit

    I used to think that fundamentalism was an outcome poverty and lack of education. Why would someone who went to an elite school want to kill innocents in the name of god.

    October 14, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Reply
    • KaraOK

      because they read the quran and believe it

      October 17, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Reply
      • Anon

        If by "believe" you mean "grossly misinterpret." Nowhere in the Karan does it mention that the murder of innocents (and yourself, in some cases) is your duty. Extremists read it, misinterpret it, and give Islams a bad name.

        October 18, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Torie

      Play ifornmatvie for me, Mr. internet writer.

      January 27, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
    • nitmrgiqsdp

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      January 28, 2012 at 7:44 am | Reply
    • vanswh

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      January 30, 2012 at 11:59 am | Reply
  9. Nightwing

    I don't see how it's possible to stop this kind of thing. Now they are talking about using boob implants and intra-abdominal devices virtually impossible to detect.

    The U.S. has been very lucky......so far.

    October 14, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  10. chris.in.pa

    Agreed!

    October 14, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  11. Justice is served

    !st

    Hang him. No sense in us paying for this guy to rot in our jails.

    October 14, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Reply
    • chris Omu

      What a shame! A god that can not fight for itself is dead! When will these extremists learn this fact!

      October 14, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Reply

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