DETROIT — A Nigerian man accused of trying to ignite an explosive on a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas appeared before a judge for the first time Friday, against a backdrop of protesters who stood outside the courthouse waving American flags and denouncing acts of terror.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's arraignment was brief – less than five minutes – and a not guilty plea was entered on his behalf. He said little, telling the judge simply that he understood the charges against him.
At least one passenger from Northwest Airlines flight 253 watched the hearing from the court benches. Hebba Aref, a Detroit area native who sat six rows in front of Abdulmutallab on the plane, said she came because the attack "changed my life."
Aref, who drew international attention in 2008 after being refused a seat directly behind then-presidential candidate Barack Obama at a Detroit rally because she was wearing a headscarf, said she just wanted to see Abdulmutallab again.
She said she wants him to be "tried by the system" but also is concerned about what his case could mean.
It's the "whole ideology out there that's radical and misuses a beautiful religion," she said. "That's what needs to be dealt with and deterred. ... He's just a small part of it."
Authorities say the 23-year-old Nigerian with al-Qaida links was traveling to Detroit from Amsterdam when he tried to destroy the plane carrying nearly 300 people by injecting chemicals into a package of explosives concealed in his underwear. The failed attack caused popping sounds and flames that passengers and crew rushed to extinguish.
Obama considers the Christmas attack an attempted strike against the United States by an affiliate of al-Qaida. He also has said the government had information that could have stopped Abdulmutallab, but intelligence agencies failed to connect the dots.
A grand jury indicted him earlier this week on six charges. The most serious – attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction – could land Abdulmutallab in prison for life if convicted.
During Friday's arraignment, Abdulmutallab, who wore a white T-shirt, tennis shoes and a chain shackle at his ankles, stood at the podium and answered questions in English from U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark A. Randon.
He said "yes" when asked if he understood the charges against him and said he had taken "some pain pills" after the judge inquired whether he had taken any drugs or alcohol in the past 24 hours. Abdulmutallab, who is being held at a federal prison in Milan, Mich., had been treated at a hospital for burns after the attack.
His attorneys then waived the reading of the indictment, and Randon entered the not-guilty plea. It is routine practice in federal court for the defendant to allow the judge to enter a plea rather than say anything himself.
His defense attorney, Miriam Siefer, also did not challenge the government's request to keep Abdulmutallab in pre-trial custody.
U.S. investigators have said Abdulmutallab told them he received training and instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. His father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son had drifted into extremism in Yemen, but that threat was never fully digested by the U.S. security apparatus.
Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, has said Abdulmutallab would be offered a plea deal in exchange for valuable information about his contacts in Yemen and elsewhere.
After the hearing, one of his attorneys, Leroy Soles, declined to talk about the case.
"It's just too soon in the process to make any comment," Soles said at a nearby coffee shop. The date of the next hearing was not set.
Maryam Uwais, a lawyer in Nigeria, and Mahmud Kazaure, a lawyer from Maryland, told The Associated Press that they were sent by Abdulmutallab's family to observe the hearing. Neither have a role in the case, but both spoke briefly with the suspect's legal team. They declined to further comment.
Earlier in the day, authorities set up metal barricades outside the courthouse and limited foot traffic in the area. A protester stood holding a sign that read: "No U.S. Rights For Terrorists."
About 50 men and women identifying themselves as Detroit-area Muslims chanted "We are Americans" as they marched behind metal barricades outside the courthouse to denounce terrorism. About a dozen of them carried U.S. flags or signs with messages such as "Not in the name of Islam."
Four Muslims who were part of the protest performed Friday prayers in the court's small museum located on the first floor.
"We have prayer rugs outside in the car. We could have done a show for the media," protest organizer Majed Moughni said. "We're doing this for God."
Associated Press writers Mike Householder and Jeff Karoub contributed to this report.