Kenyan charged with plotting 9/11 style attack in US

Friday, December 18th, 2020 00:00 |
Cholo Abdi Abdullah, 30, planned for almost four years to commandeer a commercial aircraft and launch a 9/11-style attack on a major US city. Photo/Courtesy

An American court has been told how a Kenyan terror suspect planned for almost four years to commandeer a commercial aircraft and launch a 9/11-style attack on a major US city.

Cholo Abdi Abdullah, 30, left Kenya for Philippines in December 2016, at the instigation of a senior Al Shabaab commander who was responsible for, among other things, planning the January 2019 Dusit D2 Hotel attack in Nairobi.

Immediately he got to the Philippines, Abdullah began the process of enrolling in a flight school, All Asia Aviation Academy, in order to obtain a pilot’s licence.

He would later learn how to hijack an aircraft for purposes of conducting a 9/11-style attack to cause a mass-casualty incident.

Abdullah, who was charged in a US court on Wednesday, was arrested in the Philippines in July 2019, where he remained in custody until his extradition to America this week.

The US Department of Justice on Wednesday said the charges against Abdullah include conspiring to provide and providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organisation, conspiring to murder US nationals, and conspiring to commit aircraft piracy.

Conspiracy to terrorism

Other charges included conspiracy to destroy aircraft and conspiring to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries. 

Between 2017 and 2019, according to court documents, Abdullah attended the flight school on various occasions and obtained pilot’s training, ultimately completing tests necessary to obtain a pilot’s licence.

While training as a pilot, he also conducted research into the means and methods to hijack a commercial airliner to conduct a planned attack, including security on commercial airliners.

Detectives revealed that on October 6, 2018, Abdullah visited a webpage that compiled jihadist propaganda about the September 11, 2001, World Trade Centre attack in New York.

In December 2018, the suspect conducted an online research on the security of commercial airliners and how to breach a cockpit from outside.

Convinced he was prepared for the attack, Abdullah in January last year researched online about the tallest building in a major US city.

Maximum life sentence 

Detectives further said that in February last year he again researched on how to breach a cockpit door from outside and commandeer a plane, and information about how to obtain a US visa.

His plot was, however, detected before he could achieve his deadly ambitions.

Abdullah, who has been a member of the terrorist group since 2012, faces a maximum life sentence, and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.

The court yesterday clarified that he was still presumed innocent until proven guilty.             

The court heard that anti-terror detectives discovered Abdullah’s affiliation to the terror group Al Shabaab and alerted Philippine authorities, and on July 1 last year, the suspect was arrested inside room 28 of Rasca Hotel in Iba, Zambales, Philippines.

He was found in possession of bomb-making material, a hand grenade, an improvised explosive device (IED), and a pistol.

These are commonly used by the Abu Sayyaf Group militants, the violent Muslim terrorist group operating in the southern Philippines.

The urgent operation was conducted after the Philippines Criminal Investigation and Detection Group received reports from foreign counterparts who described Abdullah as “very dangerous”.

On Tuesday this week, after 17 months in custody in the Philippines, Abdullah was transferred to the US to face the charges before Magistrate Judge Robert Lehrburger in a Manhattan federal court.

The assistant attorney general for National Security John C. Demers said the case involved a plot to use an aircraft to kill innocent people and was a grim reminder of the deadly threat radical Islamic terrorists continue to pose.

“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,” Demers said.

Anti-Terrorism agencies

Demers has commended efforts of Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU), the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Joint Terrorism Task Force-Kenya and other foreign agencies including the FBI and the Philippines security agencies.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to the detectives, agents, analysts, and prosecutors who are responsible for this defendant’s arrest.”

Demers warned that terrorist organisations such as  Al Shabaab remained determined to plot, plan and conspire to commit terrorist acts across the globe.

On his part, the FBI assistant director for counterterrorism Jill Sanborn warned that the agencies 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 whoever is responsible.

“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,” Sanborn warned.

Acting Manhattan attorney Audrey Strauss said the security agencies remained resolute in their dedication to investigating, preventing, and prosecuting such lethal plots, and will use every tool in their arsenal to stop those who would commit acts of terrorism at home and abroad. 

“Abdullah’s plot was detected before he could achieve his deadly aspirations, and now he faces federal terrorism charges in a US court,” Strauss said on Wednesday.

The terror group has escalated attacks as part of its global campaign to target Americans in response to the US decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018.

The campaign, dubbed “Operation Jerusalem Will Never be Judaized”, has culminated in multiple attacks for which Al Shabaab has publicly claimed credit.

More on News