WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki personally directed and approved the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner which a Nigerian man tried to carry out on Christmas Day in 2009, according to new details released by federal prosecutors on Friday.
Awlaki, who was a leader of the militant group’s affiliate in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), before he was killed in a drone strike last year, directed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to conduct a strike aboard an American airliner over U.S. soil.
“Awlaki’s last instructions to him were to wait until the airplane was over the United States and then to take the plane down,” according to court papers. Awlaki left it up to Abdulmutallab to pick the flight and date, the papers said.
Awlaki also told him to avoid suspicion by not flying directly from Yemen to Europe. Instead, Abdulmutallab flew from Yemen to Ethiopia to Ghana and Nigeria before boarding a flight to Amsterdam and eventually Detroit.
Abdulmutallab, 25, is due to be sentenced Thursday in Detroit and faces up to life in prison after pleading guilty to charges he tried to down a Northwest Airlines jumbo jet with 289 people aboard.
The bomb, hidden in his underwear, failed to fully detonate and he was quickly subdued by passengers and crew. The incident led U.S. officials to quickly bolster airport security, deploying full-body scanners to try to detect hidden explosives.
While hospitalized because of burns to his groin area from trying to ignite the explosives, Abdulmutallab told a nurse he had no history of trying to harm anyone. When she disputed that assertion by noting his bombing attempt, he replied: “That was martyrdom,” according to the court papers.
In October, Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty days after his trial began, saying he had wanted to avenge the killing of innocent Muslims by the United States. A lawyer for the Nigerian
was not immediately available for comment on Friday.
In a sentencing memorandum filed in federal court in Detroit, prosecutors urged a judge to sentence Abdulmutallab to the maximum of life in a U.S. prison.
In that filing, prosecutors for the first time revealed new details of the plot, including Abdulmutallab’s close connections to the al Qaeda leader, who has been linked to other plots against the United States.
Abdulmutallab went to Yemen in August 2009 after following Awlaki’s online teachings for years and sought him out in mosques. He made contact and was taken to Awlaki’s home in the desert, where he agreed to carry out an attack, according to the court papers.
He was then sent to receive training from an al Qaeda bombmaker, Ibrahim Al Asiri, in an AQAP camp where they discussed the mission. Asiri delivered the underwear bomb to Abdulmutallab and trained him on how to detonate it.
Awlaki helped Abdulmutallab write a martyrdom statement and arranged for a “professional film crew” to film the five-minute message, prosecutors said in the sentencing memorandum.
“Although Awlaki gave defendant operational flexibility, Awlaki instructed defendant that the only requirements were that the attack be on a U.S. airliner, and that the attack take place over U.S. soil,” the court papers said.
Prosecutors also asked permission to show at the sentencing a video the FBI created which simulated the bomb Abdulmutallab tried to detonate. The video included demonstrations of detonations of 200 grams of the explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate, the bomb’s capacity, and of the 76 grams recovered from the bomb.
Awlaki, who was identified by U.S. intelligence as “chief of external operations” for al Qaeda’s Yemen branch and a Web-savvy propagandist for the Islamist cause, was killed in an attack by missiles fired from multiple CIA drones in a remote Yemeni town, U.S. officials have said previously.
The U.S.-born cleric left for Yemen after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Also killed in the strike was Samir Khan, another American who turned to militancy and served as editor of “Inspire,” a propaganda and recruitment publication for AQAP.
Prosecutors also filed a report by a criminology expert who reviewed the FBI’s debriefing reports about Abdulmutallab, which said he wanted to conduct “jihad” directed by Awlaki, and said he would likely try again if given the opportunity.
Reporting By Jeremy Pelofsky; editing by Todd Eastham