US Charges Kenyan Arrested in Philippines over 9/11-type Plot

Imran Vittachi
US Charges Kenyan Arrested in Philippines over 9/11-type Plot Civilians run from the scene of an explosion after an al-Shabaab militia stormed a government building in Mogadishu, Somalia, March 23, 2019.

Updated at 7:35 a.m. ET on 2020-12-17

Federal prosecutors in New York on Wednesday charged a suspected member of an al-Qaeda-linked Somali militant group with participating in a 9/11-style terror plot against the United States, saying he received pilot training in the Philippines to prepare for an attack.

Cholo Abdi Abdullah, a 30-year-old Kenyan national, arrived in the United States on Tuesday after being deported from the Southeast Asian country, where he had been in Philippine custody since his arrest on terrorism charges there in July 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said.  

DOJ officials alleged that Abdullah was a member of al-Shabaab – an East African group blamed for deadly terrorist attacks in Somalia and Kenya – as they announced the unsealing of an indictment against him on six terrorism-related charges.

“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,” Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement.

“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,” she said.

On Sept. 11 of that year, operatives with the al-Qaeda international terror network who had trained at flight schools in the U.S. hijacked four American airliners.

They commandeered the planes and flew two of them into the Twin Towers in New York, and another into the Pentagon. The fourth plane, United Airlines flight 93, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers mounted a mutiny against the hijackers.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks. 

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

“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,” he said.

Police released this mugshot of suspected al-Shabaab militant Cholo Abdi Abdullah, July 2, 2019. [Handout/Philippine National Police]

A senior al-Shabaab commander had directed Abdullah to go to the Philippines in 2016 to enroll in flight school there, the DOJ statement said. He attended flight school and obtained training as a pilot between 2017 and 2019, officials said.

“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,” U.S. justice officials said.

In early July last year, Philippine police arrested Abdullah in Zambales, a northern province, on suspicion that he was plotting a terrorist plot there.

Police seized an improvised bomb, a pistol and a hand grenade from his hotel room, Maj. Gen. Amador Corpus, then chief of the Philippine’s police criminal investigation and detection unit, said at the time.

Abdullah, he said, was enrolled in an aviation school and doing research “on different aviation threats, aircraft hijacking and falsifying travel documents.” 

Charges laid against Abdullah in the United States included conspiring to murder U.S. nationals, conspiring to destroy aircraft, conspiring to commit acts of terrorism across national boundaries, and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, the DOJ statement said.

Abdullah pleaded not guilty to the charges during a court appearance in New York on Wednesday, and was ordered jailed without bond, the Associated Press reported. He would face a minimum prison term of 20 years if convicted. 

This updated version adds information about the suspect's plea in response to the charges against him.


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