Suspected Al-Shabaab Operative Charged in 9/11-Style Hijacking Plot

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 19: The Department of Justice headquarters stands on February 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. A Department of Justice spokesperson is denying that Attorney General William Barr is considering resigning after his critical comments about President Trump Trump tweeting about ongoing Department of Justice cases. (Photo by …
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Thirty-year-old Kenyan national Cholo Abdi Abdullah, a suspected member of Somalian terrorist organization al-Shabaab, was extradited from the Philippines to the United States on Tuesday to face terrorism charges for a 9/11-style hijacking scheme. Abdullah made his first court appearance in New York on Wednesday.

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) unsealed a six-count indictment on terrorism charges against Abdullah on Wednesday, describing him as “an operative of the foreign terrorist organization al-Shabaab.” 

The indictment states that Abdullah received pilot training in the Philippines beginning in 2016, as part of a plan to “hijack a commercial aircraft and crash it into a building in the United States,” as summarized by acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss.

Under the command of a “senior al-Shabaab commander” also allegedly involved in planning the horrific 2019 attack on a hotel and office complex in Nairobi, Kenya, Abdullah allegedly attended the Philippine flight school sporadically through 2019, at which time he passed the tests to obtain a pilot’s license. 

Abdullah also studied the “means and methods to hijack a commercial airliner” during that time, 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.” The FBI did not specify which city or building Abdullah was interested in.

The indictment further described Abdullah as a heavy consumer of “al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda propaganda, including propaganda about al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States.”

Al-Shabaab declared it would step up attacks against American citizens after President Donald Trump relocated the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in 2018, forming a “Jerusalem Brigade” dedicated to attacks against America and Israel. Al-Shabaab describes terrorist attacks it has launched in response to the embassy relocation, including the Nairobi hotel attack, as part of “Operation Jerusalem Will Never be Judaized.” DOJ noted that one of the 21 people killed in that attack was a U.S. national who survived 9/11.

Fortunately, the attack was thwarted by the joint efforts of the FBI and Philippine police, and Abdullah was arrested in the Philippines on “local charges” in July 2019.

Al Jazeera News noted that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) lived in the Philippines during the 1990s, along with his nephew, 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. KSM has stated the 9/11 plot was originally conceived in the Philippines, while Yousef was the main suspect in the bombing of Philippine Airlines flight 434 in 1994.

“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,” FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Jill Sanborn said Wednesday.

“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,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.

In addition to praising the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI for Abdullah’s arrest, DOJ expressed gratitude to Kenyan and Philippine law enforcement and security services for their work on the case.

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