DETROIT (AP) — Alain Ghonda travels the globe with heightened awareness after Christmas 2009, when a plane he was on could have been destroyed in midair by a terrorist smuggling a bomb in his underwear.
"After having that experience, you do not know who's sitting next to you," said Ghonda, 40, a consultant from Silver Spring, Md., who was a passenger on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight. "They may look like passengers, but they might want to harm you."
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the privileged son of a wealthy Nigerian banker, returns to federal court in Detroit on Thursday to receive a mandatory life sentence for trying to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253, four months after pleading guilty and admitting it was a suicide mission for al-Qaida.
The hearing is an open platform for passengers and crew who want to speak, but only five of nearly 300 are expected to address the court, according to the government.
Abdulmutallab, 25, tried to detonate explosive chemicals that were hidden in his underwear minutes before the plane landed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The government says he first performed a ritual in the lavatory — brushing his teeth and perfuming himself — and returned to his seat. The device didn't work as planned, but still produced flame, smoke and panic in the cabin.
"I've become bolder. I've become stronger," said passenger Shama Chopra, 56, of Montreal, who plans to speak in court. She ran unsuccessfully for the Canadian Parliament in 2011, a race she couldn't have imagined joining years ago.
"I don't have to feel weak," Chopra said in an interview Wednesday. "I don't have to be scared of anything. God has given me a second chance to live."
On the second day of the trial in October, Abdulmutallab suddenly pleaded guilty to all charges. In a defiant speech, he said he was carrying a "blessed weapon" to avenge Muslims who have been killed or poorly treated around the world. He admitted he was inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American-born cleric and leading al-Qaida figure in Yemen who was killed by a U.S. drone strike last fall.
"The Quran obliges every able Muslim to participate in jihad and fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, and kill them wherever you find them ... an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," Abdulmutallab said.
Anthony Chambers, an attorney appointed to assist Abdulmutallab, believes the Nigerian will speak again Thursday but doesn't know what he'll say.
Chambers, meanwhile, is urging U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds to declare that a mandatory life sentence is unconstitutional, claiming it is a cruel punishment in a case where no one but Abdulmutallab was physically hurt. His groin was badly burned.
"Not one passenger lost his or her life. Not one passenger suffered life-threatening injuries," Chambers said.
The government said that is not the threshold.
"Unsuccessful terrorist attacks still engender fear in the broader public, which, after all, is one of their main objectives," prosecutors said in a court filing Wednesday. "In addition, the enormous cost of the augmented security measures adopted as a direct result of defendant's unsuccessful terrorist attack are borne by the American public at large in both increased cost, inconvenience and wasted time at airports."