Prosecutor sheds light on failed bombing plot Christmas 2009

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 By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

 
On Christmas Day 2014, Jonathan Tukel marked an anniversary of sorts.

Five years ago on December 25, Tukel saw his day off interrupted by a bizarre attempt to blow up an airliner over metro Detroit, setting in motion one of the most exhaustive federal investigations into the inner workings of Al Qaeda and a self-styled jihadist who would come to be known as the “Underwear Bomber.”

Interestingly, Tukel, now chief of the National Security Unit of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, will be forever linked to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who tried to take down a jumbo jet with some 290 people on board as it approached Metro Airport. A 1988 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Tukel was the lead prosecutor in the case against Abdulmutallab, the son of a wealthy banker and financier. He handled the case with two other Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Michael Martin and Cathleen Corken, describing the prosecution as “a team effort.”

Just days into his trial on multiple counts of attempted murder and use of a weapon of mass destruction, Abdulmutallab did the unexpected – pleading guilty to eight federal charges, thereby sparing the court of what figured to be drawn out legal proceedings.

Yet, in a sense, it also proved to be a lost opportunity for Tukel and other federal law enforcement officials to demonstrate the effectiveness of the U.S. justice system in cases of international terrorism threats. The decision to try Abdulmutallab in a civilian court sparked political debate at the time, Tukel acknowledged, but was a victory for those who believe that such cases should not be confined to military tribunals.

In mid-December, at a special invitation only program at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, Tukel was offered the chance to lay out his case against the would-be bomber. The program was hosted by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, who viewed the presentation as an opportunity for some 30 friends and associates to gain insight into the botched bombing plot.

“While thankfully the bomber’s plan to blow up the plane failed, it nonetheless illustrated how determined terrorists are in attempting to inflict casualties,” Judge Friedman said. “It is a constant threat.”

That point was driven home repeatedly by Tukel during the two-hour program December 11 in the Greenberg Suite of the JCC.

“Abdulmutallab was born into a family of means and was educated in the finest of schools, yet he decided to become a suicide bomber to assure his place in martyrdom,” Tukel told those attending the program. “He is not what the public commonly thinks of as an Al Qaeda jihadist, but in fact many (most of the 9/11 hijackers, for instance) are from upper middle-class or wealthier families.”

While a student at the University College London, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 2008, Abdulmutallab was president of the school’s Islamic Society and began harboring extremist views, according to Tukel. He developed a particular fascination with the teachings of American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaeda leader killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

He was so taken by al-Awlaki that Abdulmutallab visited him in Yemen, eventually earning his trust after spending time in an Al Qaeda training camp in the Arabian country, Tukel related. It was there that the plot to blow up a U.S. airliner was hatched, Tukel said.
 
In Yemen, Abdulmutallab developed connections with the notorious Al Qaeda bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the reported mastermind of the “underwear bomb” device. It was his job to develop a chemical-charged explosive that could elude airport detection equipment and could be easily detonated, Tukel stated. 
 
Once that task was complete, it was up to Abdulmutallab to arrange a flight to the U.S. that would not draw suspicion from travel authorities, Tukel indicated. After visiting several travel agencies, Abdulmutallab settled on a Northwest Airlines flight routed through Amsterdam with a final destination of Detroit. Flights to Chicago and Houston also were considered, but he opted for Detroit simply for financial reasons. Coincidentally, the flight was scheduled to land on Christmas morning.

“There is no indication that the Christmas date was pre-determined,” Tukel said. “As it turned out, it was just an added benefit to his overall plan.”

According to Tukel, Abdulmutallab had been instructed to detonate the bomb over the U.S. What he didn’t realize, however, was that the Northwest jet would be over U.S. soil for just a matter of minutes on its approach to Metro Airport since its final flight path was through Canadian airspace.

“He was tracking the plane’s path on the seat TV screen, and set off the explosive after spending more than 20 minutes in the bathroom cleansing and purifying himself,” Tukel told the December 11 audience at the Jewish Community Center. “He could have just as easily have set off the device in the bathroom, but apparently he wanted to detonate it in a more proper setting.”

Using a plastic syringe, he injected a chemical mixture into a packet that was sewn into his underwear, immediately causing a “loud pop that sounded like a firecracker,” Tukel said. The passenger in an aisle seat next to Abdulmutallab then shouted, “Dude, your pants are on fire,” according to Tukel.

Within seconds, several other passengers swarmed Abdulmutallab, extinguishing the flames while subduing him with the help of Northwest flight attendants. The flight, at the time, was located above Woodhaven in the Downriver area, just minutes from landing at Metro.

“To the pilots, it wasn’t clear whether they were dealing strictly with a fire or with an explosion,” Tukel said. “As you can imagine, it was a chaotic scene with smoke billowing through the cabin and passengers screaming.”

Once the flight landed, the pilots headed to the terminal, not knowing that remnants of an explosive device were present on the plane. It didn’t take long for Customs officials to determine that the plane needed to be rerouted to an airport site far removed from the populated terminal, according to Tukel.

Tukel was among those on the scene at University of Michigan Medical Center, where Abdulmutallab was transported for burn treatment. 

“I arrived around 7 p.m.,” Tukel said. “Agents had been at the airport and the hospital since the incident, shortly after noon.”

It was at the hospital where Abdulmutallab told investigators of his suicide mission, of his quest for “martyrdom” to avenge “American acts of aggression” in Muslim countries in the Mideast.

In the ensuing months, Tukel and a team of federal investigators were dogged in their determination to uncover the scope of the bomb plot, conducting hundreds of interviews while methodically building their court case against the 23-year-old Nigerian. 

They remained steadfast in their efforts even after Abdulmutallab dismissed his court-appointed counsel, opting instead to represent himself. The decision proved fateful in the fall of 2011 when Abdulmutallab decided just days into his trial to plead guilty to all eight charges against him. 

Now, Abdulmutallab spends 23-1/2 hours of his day in solitary confinement at a federal prison in Colorado, according to Tukel, acknowledging that it is the price the jihadist is destined to pay for the rest of his life for an ill-fated holy mission.

“His appeals have been denied, so he cannot get any reprieve through litigation,” Tukel said. “The Supreme Court denied review of his case in October.”
 

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