Kenyan National Plotted to Fly Hijacked Plane Into U.S. Skyscraper: DOJ

Cholo Abdi Abdullah

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Cholo Abdi Abdullah is a Kenyan national accused of plotting to hijack an airplane to conduct a 9/11-style attack by flying it into a U.S. skyscraper, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“The Department of Justice announced the unsealing of an indictment charging Cholo Abdi Abdullah with six counts of terrorism-related offenses arising from his activities as an operative of the foreign terrorist organization al Shabaab, including conspiring to hijack aircraft in order to conduct a 9/11-style attack in the United States,” the DOJ’s press release said.

The indictment explains that a loose coalition of “Islamic insurgents” took control of much of Somalia, and that coalition emerged as “the terrorist organization known as al Shabaab.” You can read the indictment here.

Abdullah was arrested in July 2019 in the Philippines on local charges. He was sent to the U.S. for prosecution on the U.S. charges. The suspect was transported to the U.S. on December 15, 2020, and he was expected in federal court in Manhattan on December 16.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. The Justice Department Says the Plot Is a Reminder of the Deadly Threat Posed by ‘Radical Islamic Terrorists’

The DOJ’s release says the indictment underscores the threat of terrorism to United States citizens>

“This case, which involved a plot to use an aircraft to kill innocent victims, reminds us of the deadly threat that radical Islamic terrorists continue to pose to our nation. And it also highlights our commitment to pursue and hold accountable anybody who seeks to harm our country and our citizens. No matter where terrorists who plan to target Americans may be located, we will seek to identify them and bring them to justice,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “We owe a debt of gratitude to the detectives, agents, analysts, and prosecutors who are responsible for this defendant’s arrest.”

“Today’s announcement shows that foreign terrorist organizations, like al Shabaab, remain determined to plot, plan, and conspire to commit terrorist acts across the globe against the United States, our interests and our foreign partners,” said FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Jill Sanborn.

“Let there be no doubt that the FBI and our law enforcement colleagues, and in this case specifically those in the Philippines and Kenya, will not stop in our mission to hold terrorists accountable for their actions. The charges announced today against Cholo Abdi Abdullah eerily draws parallels to the heinous attacks on this country on September 11, 2001. The FBI, along with our U.S. Government and international partners, will continue to be in lockstep against terrorism and will not allow the safety or security of the public to be threatened – no matter where in the world it may be or whomever is responsible.”

2. Abdullah Obtained Pilot Training in the Philippines, the Release Says

The complaint describes how Abdullah painstakingly obtained pilot training in the Philippines.

“As alleged, Cholo Abdi Abdullah, as part of a terrorist plot directed by senior al Shabaab leaders, obtained pilot training in the Philippines in preparation for seeking to hijack a commercial aircraft and crash it into a building in the United States,” said Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss.

“This chilling callback to the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, is a stark reminder that terrorist groups like al Shabaab remain committed to killing U.S. citizens and attacking the United States. But we remain even more resolute in our dedication to investigating, preventing, and prosecuting such lethal plots, and will use every tool in our arsenal to stop those who would commit acts of terrorism at home and abroad. Thanks to the outstanding investigative work of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the FBI’s global partnerships with law enforcement agencies around the world, Abdullah’s plot was detected before he could achieve his deadly aspirations, and now he faces federal terrorism charges in a U.S. court.”

Abdullah obtained a pilot license, authorities say.

“Nearly 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there are those who remain determined to conduct terror attacks against United States citizens. Abdullah, we allege, is one of them,” said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. “He obtained a pilot’s license overseas, learning how to hijack an aircraft for the purpose of causing a mass-casualty incident within our borders. Fortunately, the exceptional work by the men and women assigned to the many agencies that comprise the FBI’s New York JTTF have, once again, disrupted a threat to our communities.”

3. The Plot Was Coordinated by a Terrorist Group Called al Shabaab, According to Authorities

Authorities don’t believe Abdullah was working on his own.

“The charges in the Indictment unsealed today arise out of a coordinated scheme by the terrorist organization Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, commonly known as ‘al Shabaab,’ to target Americans both at home and abroad,” the release says.

“Al Shabaab, which has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda and serves as al Qaeda’s principal wing in East Africa, is responsible for numerous deadly terrorist attacks, including attacks that have claimed American lives. Recently, al Shabaab has embarked on a string of terrorist attacks as part of an operation purportedly in response to the United States’ decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which the group has dubbed ‘Operation Jerusalem Will Never be Judaized.'”

Some attacks were carried out. “In particular, these terrorist attacks perpetrated by al Shabaab include an attack on Jan. 15, 2019, at a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 21 people, including a U.S. national and survivor of al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, New York; a Sept. 30, 2019, attack on a U.S. military facility in Somalia; and a Jan. 5, 2020, attack on another U.S. facility in Kenya, in which three Americans were killed,” the release says.

4. A Terrorist Involved in the Nairobi Hotel Attack Gave Abdullah Direction, the Release Says

As alleged in the Indictment, Abdullah “was an al Shabaab operative who participated in a plot to hijack commercial aircraft and crash them into a building in the United States,” authorities say.

“Beginning in 2016, at the direction of a senior al Shabaab commander who was responsible for, among other things, planning the 2019 Nairobi hotel attack, Abdullah traveled to the Philippines and enrolled in a flight school there, for the purpose of obtaining training for carrying out the 9/11-style attack,” they wrote.

While Abdullah was obtaining pilot training at the Flight School, he also “conducted research into the means and methods to hijack a commercial airliner to conduct the planned attack, including security on commercial airliners and how to breach a cockpit door from the outside, information about the tallest building in a major U.S. city, and information about how to obtain a U.S. visa,” says the release.

5. The 30-Year-Old Kenyan Is Facing Many Charges That Could Result in Life in Prison

Abdullah, 30, of Kenya, is charged with conspiring to provide and providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization (al Shabaab), conspiring to murder U.S. nationals, conspiring to commit aircraft piracy, conspiring to destroy aircraft, and conspiring to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, says the release.

Abdullah faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. The specific penalties for each of the charges is reflected in the chart below, says the release.

This prosecution is being handled by the Office’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit.