Commentary: Abdulmutallab’s life sentence underscores effectiveness of federal courts in terrorism cases


Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s life sentence validates the Justice Department’s decision to prosecute the Al Qaeda terrorist in a civilian court rather than a secret military tribunal.

The so-called “underwear bomber” was sentenced to life in prison last week for the attempted Christmas day bombing of Northwest Airline flight 253 in 2009. The 25-year-old Nigerian-born, London-educated engineer admitted he was trained and provided the bomb materials by Al Qaeda in Yemen.

Theodore Levin U.S. Court House in Detroit, Michigan. SOURCE:

The case “shows that the civilian court system is a valuable mechanism for obtaining intelligence and convicting terrorists with the legal certainty and transparency that instills public confidence in American justice,” said Barbara McQuade, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Read more: ‘Underwear bomber’ sentenced to life in prison

Abdulmutallab’s life sentence is the latest in a slew of terrorism cases successfully prosecuted in federal court. Since 9/11, civilian courts have convicted more than 400 terrorists. According to a 2009 study by Human Rights First, terrorist suspects tried in federal court were convicted 91% of the time between September 2001 and June 2009. In comparison, in the 10 years since Guantanamo was opened, the military tribunal convicted only 6 terrorists; another 6 cases are currently pending before the tribunal.

But back in 2010, the Justice Department’s decision to file criminal charges in federal court was vehemently attacked by Republican lawmakers, who claimed that Abdulmutallab was a war “combatant” and sought to detain him in Guantanamo, where he could be subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture) by intelligence officials. Those Republican lawmakers included: Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Fla.), then-Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), then-Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.); they were joined by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Sen. Collins (R-Me.) even introduced a bill – S.2943 – to block the Justice Department from interrogating or filing criminal charges against a terrorist suspect until after the department consults with the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Secretary of Defense. The legislation would force the Justice Department to transfer suspects to Guantanamo, where individuals deemed as “enemy combatants” may be detained indefinitely without charge or trial. Collins justified her bill by claiming that “our civil justice system, as opposed to military detention, encourages terrorists to ʻlawyer-upʼ and stop answering questions.”

But in reality, those fears were unfounded.

In fact, Abdulmutallab did provide valuable information to federal investigators without the use of harsh interrogation tactics, which would have jeopardized the admissibility of the evidence collected. Even after Abdulmutallab was notified of his Miranda rights, he continued to share information with investigators, including intelligence on Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American imam who was killed by U.S. drones in Yemen last September.

“[Abdulmutallab] spoke openly without torture being used. But there were people in high position in the United States who wanted him to be sent to Guantanamo and want him to be waterboarded,” noted Andy Worthington, an independent journalist and author of “The Guantanamo Files.”

The court documents show Abdulmutallab willingly cooperated with investigators shortly after the failed bombing:

“[FBI Special] Agent [Timothy] Waters asked Defendant where he traveled, when he had traveled, how, and with whom; the details of the explosive device; the details regarding the bomb-maker, including where Defendant had received the bomb; his intentions in attacking Flight 253; and who else might be planning an attack. Every question sought to identify any other potential attackers and to prevent another potential attack. Defendant answered, providing information that helped the agents to determine where to go next and investigate if anyone else might be planning to or was already in the process of carrying a similar device on an aircraft.”

By the end of that initial 50-minute questioning, Agent Waters and other federal investigators were able to determine that the bombing was an isolated – not a multi-pronged – attack planned by Al Qaeda in Yemen. This determination allowed law enforcement agencies to focus their efforts on collecting evidence and gathering intelligence on other terrorist plots during the critical period after the bombing.

Abdulmutallab did try to get his confession thrown out in court, arguing that he was not notified of his Miranda rights during the questioning by Special Agent Waters. But U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Edmunds denied Abdulmutallab’s request and allowed his statements to be admitted into evidence, citing that the questioning fell “within the public safety exception to Miranda. Under the Quarles exception, investigators can question a suspect (for a reasonable period of time) without informing of his or her right to an attorney if there’s an imminent threat to public safety.

“Mindful of Defendant’s self-proclaimed association with al-Qaeda and knowing the group’s past history of large, coordinate plots and attacks, the agents logically feared that there could be additional, imminent aircraft attacks in the United States and elsewhere in the world,” Edmunds explained in her ruling. “The agents’ questions were intended to shed light on the obvious public safety concerns in this case and were ‘necessary to secure…the safety of the public[.]”

In the end, the information obtained through non-coercive questioning was used to successfully try and convict Abdulmutallab.

“The Abdulmutallab case was handled as all such cases should be: by U.S. law enforcement, who quickly and lawfully secured a confession from the suspect and then went on to obtain extensive information about his alleged co-conspirator, Anwar al-Awlaki.  This is a perfect example of why terrorism should be investigated and prosecuted in the criminal justice system, not by the U.S. military,” said Dixon Osburn, Director of the Law and Security Program at Human Rights First.


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