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'Underwear Bomber' Trial May Shed Light On Awlaki

Opening statements in the trial of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in the failed Christmas Day attack on a U.S.-bound airliner, begin Tuesday in Detroit. Besides the obvious issue of Abdulmutallab's guilt or innocence, questions remain about his ties to the American-born radical imam killed last month in a CIA drone strike.

Two Christmases ago, Abdulmutallab allegedly boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam with a mission. Stashed in his underwear was a powerful explosive, and as the plane neared Detroit, Abdulmutallab is accused of trying to detonate those explosives and bring down the plane. The plot failed. The bomb merely flamed and smoked, and passengers on the flight tackled the 24-year-old Nigerian and put out the fire.

Abdulmutallab allegedly told FBI agents when they arrested him that he was working for al-Qaida and was sent to the U.S. by a spiritual leader with al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki was killed last month in a CIA drone strike. The killing is controversial partly because Awlaki is American. He was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, and his summary execution by drone has raised questions not only about due process, but also about the evidence U.S. officials had to determine that Awlaki was an al-Qaida operative. The Abdulmutallab trial could provide some answers to those questions.

That's because Awlaki was put on the U.S. "capture or kill" target list shortly after the Christmas Day bombing attempt. His connection to Abdulmutallab's case is one of the reasons officials give for targeting Awlaki — although evidence of his role has never been presented in court or released publicly. The New York Times reported over the weekend that a secret memo was written by Obama administration lawyers laying out the reasons why Awlaki should be on the target list. That memo came out in the spring of 2010 and was never made public, either. The Christmas Day bombing attempt is allegedly cited in that memo.

The Abdulmutallab case could also provide a window into al-Qaida's recruitment process. Abdulmutallab was most likely radicalized during his time at university in London. He is thought to have discovered Awlaki's sermons at that time, and allegedly became an acolyte of sorts to the imam. The trial might provide more detail on that, as well.

One question about the trial was answered Friday. There had been speculation that Abdulmutallab would make the opening statement in court Tuesday. Last year, he fired his legal team and now has what the court calls a "legal adviser." Abdulmutallab informed the court Friday that the adviser, Anthony Chambers, would provide the opening statement.

Among the big issues at trial is that Abdulmutallab wasn't read his rights right away. Much of what he told FBI agents about his al-Qaida links was allegedly said while he was either on the way to the hospital to take care of massive burns he suffered from the bomb fire, or in the hospital when he was being treated. That's expected to be one line of defense.

The trial is expected to last four weeks.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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