MANHATTAN (CN) – Kicking off the trial over a nonfatal explosion that rocked Times Square last year, a defense lawyer for the bomber denied Tuesday that her suicidal client was inspired by the Islamic State group.
“Tooling around on the internet does not make you an ISIS member,” Julia Gatto from the Federal Defenders of New York said this morning in her eight-minute opening statement.
After a pipe bomb in Akayed Ullah’s backpack went off on Dec. 11, 2017, in a tunnel near the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal, authorities wasted little time in labeling the bombing as a terrorist attack.
But Gatto disputed this connection today at the start of Ullah’s trial, insisting that prosecutors are “fundamentally wrong about ISIS’ role” in the case.
Gatto did not deny her 28-year-old client caused the explosion, in which he was the only party who was seriously injured, but she pushed the jury to be nix charges that Ullah provided support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Describing her client as a “depressed and unsound” young man, Gatto said the Bangladeshi former cabbie “retreated to the internet,” where he absorbed “distorted messaging” regarding the perceived mistreatment of the Muslim community worldwide.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebekah Donaleski told the jury in her 20-minute opening statement to take Ullah at his word.
As noted in the government’s complaint, Ullah confessed under interrogation just after his arrest, “I did it for the Islamic State.”
Five people sustained minor injuries after the bomb went off at the busy public-transit hub, but Gatto insisted that Ullah never intended to kill or maim anyone other than himself, and that the improvised bomb in his backpack detonated prematurely.
Gatto also argued that Ullah was in a “mental health fog” when he conceived of the plan to blow himself up in the Port Authority terminal.
She said he chose the location at West 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue because it was guaranteed to send a “a very public message” to Donald Trump, who Ullah believed to be wrongly persecuting Muslims.
The government noted in its charging papers that Ullah warned the president via Facebook shortly before his attack, posting the message: “Trump you failed to protect your nation.”
During the a pretrial conference last week before U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan, the government noted that its evidence of Ullah’s radicalization through ISIS propaganda includes nine videos found on his laptop.
Sullivan said the videos will be edited for their grisly and gruesome content.
Ullah is charged with providing support to a foreign terrorist organization, use of a weapon of mass destruction, bombing a place of public use, destruction of public property by means of fire or explosive, terrorist attack against mass transportation systems and use of a destructive device in furtherance of a crime of violence.
If convicted of all five counts, Ullah faces potential life sentence and a mandatory minimum consecutive sentence of 30 years in prison.
Ullah, who previously wore prison scrubs at court appearances, was wearing a suit for the trial today. Since his arrest last December, Ullah has grown out his hair and beard during his incarceration at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
His trial is expected to last two and a half weeks.
Ullah is also represented in the case by Amy Gallicchio from the Federal Defenders of New York. Jury selection took a day and a half.