DETROIT — A Nigerian man accused of trying to bring down a jetliner with a bomb in his underwear made a defiant political outburst Tuesday, demonstrating again why his courtroom behavior will be closely watched throughout the trial where he’s representing himself.
“The mujahadeen will wipe out the U.S. — the cancer U.S.,” said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, scowling as he referred to Muslim guerrilla fighters.
When marshals removed his handcuffs, he also claimed that a radical Muslim cleric killed last week by the American military is still alive.
In nearly two years of legal proceedings, Abdulmutallab has normally been polite and studious in front of the judge and prospective jurors. But in the moments before court, he’s shown a tendency to make comments reflecting loyalty to al-Qaida and contempt for the United States.
The 24-year-old is charged in federal court with trying to destroy the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Christmas 2009. He has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is expected to last three or four weeks.
Prospective jurors were questioned one by one, and most were told to return Thursday for inclusion in the final pool of 37 to 45 people.
Abdulmutallab, who is acting as his own lawyer, briefly questioned a potential juror, who expressed concern about people possibly “waiting in the wings outside the courthouse,” no matter the verdict.
“There could be people who would be angry and want to retaliate?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
There was no good indication how active Abdulmutallab will be when witnesses begin testifying next week. On Tuesday, he rarely looked up from the defense table and deferred most questions to Anthony Chambers, his court-appointed standby attorney. He wrote or read and quietly talked to Chambers about whether to request that a jury candidate be excused.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds reminded him that appearances are important. She firmly recommended that he not wear jail clothes and instead put on something that would make a “better impression on jurors,” at least a shirt with buttons to replace an oversized white T-shirt.
Abdulmutallab asked whether he could wear a traditional Yemeni belt with a dagger — a request the judge swiftly denied.
He returned with a dark pinstriped suit coat over a full-length tunic, with a black skull cap.
Abdulmutallab, a well-educated man from a wealthy African family, has spent two years in custody and rarely causes a ripple in court. But Tuesday’s outburst was his second in two weeks.
“Anwar is alive,” Abdulmutallab said, referring to American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in an air strike in Yemen just days ago.
The government alleges Abdulmutallab’s attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was directed by al-Awlaki. In September, he made a reference in court to slain al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who has called him a “hero,” and complained about his prison clothes.
But Abdulmutallab has never showed defiance in front of Edmunds, a judge who has spent nearly 20 years on the bench.
“I don’t know if he’s trying to make a show. It’s totally out of character” compared to past court appearances, said Kurt Haskell, a Detroit-area attorney who was a passenger on Flight 253. ‘ ‘Even when he lit the bomb, he didn’t make a peep.”
Abdulmutallab has pleaded not guilty to eight charges, including conspiracy to commit terrorism and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. The government says he intended to blow up the plane by detonating chemicals in his underwear just seven minutes before the jet carrying 279 passengers and a crew of 11 was to land at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
The bomb failed, and passengers assisted by crew members saw flames and pounced on Abdulmutallab. It was the first terrorist act in the U.S. during the Obama administration.
The government says Abdulmutallab willingly explained the plot twice, first to U.S. border officers who took him off the plane and then in more detail to FBI agents who interviewed him at a hospital for 50 minutes, following treatment for serious burns to his groin.
As the judge and lawyers combed through prospective jurors, exposure to news reports about the case was a major topic. The first two people were quickly excused when they doubted they could be fair.
Some of the most intense questioning involved Chambers and a woman who works on computer networks for a major retailer. Names and other personal details were not revealed in court.
On her questionnaire, she said the alleged attack was not an “accident” or the “act of an innocent man.” But in court, she said she could put that view aside.
“I may have a lot of opinions but there is a right to a fair trial based on facts, not opinions,” she said.
Chambers wanted her removed but the judge kept her in the pool.
Associated Press writer Jeff Karoub contributed to this report.