In the first U.S. conviction of an Al Qaeda terrorist, Richard Reid pleaded guilty Friday to charges that he tried to destroy an American Airlines transatlantic plane with explosives concealed in his shoes.
“As far as the factual basis is concerned, I done this,” Reid declared in U.S. District Court here.
Pronouncing his allegiance to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the 29-year-old British citizen faced the judge and said, “I am an enemy of your country.” U.S. Atty. Michael Sullivan said the government made no deal with Reid, who surprised prosecutors this week when he abruptly decided to plead guilty. Sullivan said his office would seek a life prison term for Reid at his Jan. 8 sentencing.
Charles Prouty, special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office, said Reid’s conviction would not end the government’s effort to learn who aided Reid in building the bomb hidden in his ankle-high hiking shoes, or to uncover additional information about his terrorist activities. “This is not the end of the investigation,” Prouty said.
But whether Reid will cooperate with authorities remained in doubt. The tall, spindly defendant appeared alternately distracted and animated in court Friday--sometimes chewing on his cheek, stroking his straggly beard and smirking as Judge William Young patiently instructed him in the intricacies of a legal system he professes to revile.
Young, in judicial robes, sat less than 3 feet from the defendant, who wore manacles and khaki prison attire. In a surreal moment of courtroom graciousness, he greeted Reid by saying, “My name’s Bill Young and I am the judge who has been assigned to preside over this case.”
A small legal colloquy ensued as Young painstakingly led Reid through the implications of his guilty plea. To most of Young’s questions, Reid responded in his strong cockney accent, “Yeah.” When asked, “bottom line,” why he wanted to plead guilty, he replied, “Because at the end of the day, I know that I have done the actions.”
Reid, whose education stopped in the fifth grade, pleaded guilty to eight charges, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, attempted homicide and placing an explosive device on an airplane. His plea also covered charges of attempted murder, two counts of interference with a flight crew and attendants, attempted destruction of an aircraft and using a destructive device during a crime of violence.
On the last count, Reid became agitated as he attempted to correct the wording. “I admit I used a destructive device in an act of war,” he said, prompting Young to respond: “Very well.”
Raised by his mother in a small town west of London after his parents divorced, Reid embraced a youthful life of street crime. He served five years in a British prison for a series of robberies. Following his release from prison in 1996, he began to frequent a mosque in south London.
Prosecutors told the court Friday that Reid was the son of a Catholic mother and Protestant father who converted to Islam in his early 20s. He received training at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, and first scouted the Israeli airline El Al as a possible bombing target. On Dec. 22, Reid boarded American Airlines Flight 63 in Paris.
The Miami-bound Boeing 767 carried 198 passengers and crew, mostly Americans. Reid took a window seat near the rear of the plane. When his seatmate got up hours into the flight, Reid removed shoes in which “a sophisticated explosive device” had been hidden, a prosecution report said.
He made six attempts to light matches as he sought to detonate fuses in both shoes. Passengers and crew members who smelled the burning rubber and smoking sulfur from the matches overpowered Reid, who bit one flight attendant in the struggle. Reid was restrained with belts supplied by passengers. His shoes were confiscated and the plane was diverted to Boston. Prosecutors said that if either of Reid’s shoes had exploded where he was seated, “the resulting explosion would have breached the outside skin of the aircraft.”
When Young asked Reid to corroborate this sequence of events, the defendant said the account was true, “more or less.” He elaborated: “Basically I got on the plane with a bomb. Basically I tried to ignite it. Basically, yeah, I intended to damage the plane.” As Reid laughed at this depiction, the judge said once again, “Very well.”
Prosecutors also cited an e-mail Reid sent to his mother via “a brother” to explain his intended actions on Flight 63. “What I am doing is part of the ongoing war between Islam and disbelief,” Reid wrote, adding that he also was sending his mother a will. He went on: “I didn’t do this act out of ignorance nor did I do [it] just because I want to die, but rather because I see it as a duty upon me to help remove the oppressive American forces from the Muslim lands.”
Labeling his struggle “a war between Islam and democracy,” he beseeched his mother, “Forgive me for all the problems I have caused you both in life and in death and don’t be angry for what I have done.” Reid reportedly entered his plea in part to avoid a trial that could cause further embarrassment to his mother.
Prosecutors also described a final e-mail in Reid’s Yahoo! account that was sent to another unidentified “brother.” Reid related a dream in which a pickup truck that was supposed to pick him up was too crowded, and passed him by. “I now believe that the pickup ... was 9/11 and it’s true that I was upset at not being sent,” Reid wrote.
In interviews with authorities at the time of his arrest, Reid said democratic countries are contrary to God’s will. He also stated that “America is the problem, without America there would be no Israel.” In addition, Reid said he was prepared to die as a martyr, and that Allah would reward him in heaven. He told federal officials that he targeted an airplane during the holiday season in hopes that Americans would stop flying, thus damaging the economy. He explained that he switched his focus from Israel to America after the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan.
“Those are your views?” Young asked Reid in court Friday. “Yeah,” he answered.
But when Young asked whether Reid was satisfied, once and for all, with his plea, he shot back: “I don’t recognize your system. How could I be satisfied?” Young also refused Reid’s request to strike the phrase “Al Qaeda” from his indictment.
“I am pledged to Osama bin Laden. I’m an enemy of your country,” Reid rejoined. “I don’t care.”