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Underwear Bomber case has big security implications

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is shown in this Dec. 28, 2009, booking photograph released by the U.S. Marshals Service in Detroit, Mich.

HO/AFP/Getty Images

The alleged Underwear Bomber marked his return to public attention with some bold declarations. "The mujahadeen will wipe out the U.S.," he shouted in a Detroit courtroom. "Anwar is alive," he added.

He was referring to Anwar al-Awlaki, the influential U.S.-born cleric he once knew, who was killed last week in Yemen, likely by a missile fired from a U.S. unmanned aircraft. A large part of the legal justification for that strike – extra-territorial, extra-judicial, and extraordinary by any legal standard – traces back to the terrorist plot that's about to be unfurled in the trial of 24-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, which began Tuesday.

Mr. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, is accused of training as a terrorist with al-Qaeda in Yemen before boarding an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Christmas Day, 2009.

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While he's accused of trying to kill nearly 300 people aboard the plane, he managed only to give himself third-degree burns after using a chemical substance in a syringe to detonate the cache of explosives stashed beneath his pants. Despite the inept attack, the curious case of the Underwear Bomber has had the following sweeping implications.

The U.S. can now justify killing Americans

A decade ago, unmanned aircraft technology started making it possible for Washington to kill people anywhere in the world. Now, the White House is increasingly asserting that it has the legal right to do so. Strikes against foreign terrorist suspects are routine in Pakistan and, to a far lesser extent, Yemen. But the targeted killing of an American citizen sits at the fringes of law in the United States, where the Constitution says no citizen can be lawfully "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process." While Mr. al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, had been on the radar of U.S. counterterrorism officials for a decade, he had until 2009 been viewed as a nuisance – an inflammatory preacher, but not an existential threat. That changed after Mr. Abdulmutallab was treated for his self-inflicted wounds in a Detroit hospital. During an FBI interrogation on his hospital bed, he reportedly said he had been in direct communications with Mr. al-Awlaki in Yemen, who is alleged to have helped direct the bomb plot. A few months later, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the controversial order authorizing the targeted killing of Mr. al-Awlaki.

Air travellers now get groped

Like the "Shoe Bomber" and the "bottle bombers" before him, the Underwear Bomber has inspired once unthinkable layers of airport scrutiny. Security agents now make travellers throw out all but the smallest bottles of liquid and take off their shoes, but they can't inspect everyone's underwear. So, in the past two years, airports have raced to acquire scanners that can see through clothing, and hire screeners who have garnered reputations as grope-happy guards, sparking the catchphrase "Don't touch my junk." One female blogger, who had undergone a double mastectomy, recently reflected on her airport ordeal: "At what point does the need for security eclipse human dignity and compassion?" she asked.

The U.S. really can prosecute terrorists

President Obama got himself elected in 2008 saying he'd shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for foreign terrorist suspects, and its parallel legal system. He said his administration would prefer to use criminal laws to try terrorists. Three years later, he has given up on the pledge. He also reneged on a bid to have several al-Qaeda figures, including the alleged 9/11 mastermind, tried in New York City, and he had Osama bin Laden shot this spring before having to contemplate how to put him on trial. The case of the Underwear Bomber, then, amounts to an increasingly rare example of the United States dealing with a high-profile al-Qaeda terrorist case under conventional criminal laws. Given that the accused has chosen to represent himself, it promises to be a wild ride.

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It could have been Canada's Lockerbie

The suspect is said to have tried to explode his bomb as the plane began its final descent toward Detroit, about 20 minutes from landing. Observers have said the plane would have been flying over rural Southwestern Ontario at that time, just west of London, when Mr. Abdulmutallab attempted the detonation. Had the attack been successful, small hamlets such as Oil Springs, Ont., might have become synonymous with a massive atrocity, much like Lockerbie is indelibly linked to the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. That attack in 1988 killed all 259 people aboard the plane and 11 people in the Scottish village beneath.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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