DETROIT (Reuters) - The Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009 called the United States a “cancer” just before jury selection began Tuesday in his trial.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whose attempted bombing led to a further tightening of U.S. aviation security, also blurted out “Anwar is alive” -- an apparent reference to al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who was linked to the defendant and killed by a U.S. drone attack in Yemen last week.
Abdulmutallab, 24, is charged with attempting to detonate explosives sewn into his underpants as Northwest Flight 253 approached Detroit from Amsterdam. The device malfunctioned and burned Abdulmutallab, who was then overpowered by other passengers. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Abdulmutallab, a fluent English speaker who has said he wants to represent himself at the trial, was dressed in an oversized white T-shirt and sat quietly at his defense table as court was called to order.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds advised him he might want to wear a shirt with a collar to make a better impression on jurors.
At first, Abdulmutallab indicated he did not want to wear the Western clothes his court-appointed standby counsel had purchased for him, but acceded and court was adjourned briefly while U.S. Marshals took him away to put on more formal clothes.
When the court reconvened a few minutes later, Abdulmutallab was dressed in a black jacket with thin pinstripes over a tan-colored robe and baggy pants. He also was wearing a black skull cap.
Awlaki, a U.S.-born Muslim cleric of Yemeni descent, was identified by U.S. intelligence as “chief of external operations” for al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen.
Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the botched airliner attack. The attempted bombing was also praised by Osama bin Laden in 2010, months before he was killed in a U.S. commando raid in Pakistan.
Last month, Abdulmutallab muttered “Osama’s alive” to spectators as he was brought in for a hearing. He also mumbled “jihad” when the judge used the phrase “al Qaeda” as she read the charges against him.
The first potential juror, a former Detroit police officer, was quickly dismissed.
When Edmunds asked the second, a secretary in the auto industry, if she thought she could withhold judgment unless the government established Abdulmutallab’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, she said, ”I don’t think so.
“He tried to kill 300 innocent people ... I feel he’s very guilty.”
Edmunds said final jury selection -- 12 jurors and four alternates -- would take place Thursday afternoon. By midday, nine women and two men had made the preliminary grade and four had been excused.
The judge, the attorneys -- and at one point, Abdulmutallab himself -- quizzed most of the potential jurors on the answer they gave to one question on the preliminary questionnaire: “If you are selected to serve as a juror on the case, would you be concerned about reactions to the verdict by anyone?”
Abdulmutallab asked one juror if she agreed that an angry reaction could be triggered by a not guilty verdict as well as a guilty verdict.
She agreed, and neither side dismissed her from the pool.
Abdulmutallab, who studied at University College, London, is charged with eight felonies, including conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, attempted murder and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Opening statements are scheduled to begin on October 11. The trial is expected to last about one month after that.
In the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day bombing, the United States authorized the targeted killing of Awlaki.
Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, also allegedly had links to Awlaki.
Editing by David Bailey and Greg McCune