A Kenyan man has been indicted for allegedly training to conduct a 9/11-style attack against the United States at the direction of a “senior al Shabaab commander,” federal prosecutors announced Wednesday.
According to a newly unsealed indictment in Manhattan federal court, Cholo Abdi Abdullah faces several counts—including providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy, and conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens—after allegedly planning and training in the Philippines to hijack a commercial airliner. The 30-year-old also sought information “about the tallest building in a major U.S. city,” federal prosecutors said.
The indictment states that Abdi Abdullah worked in coordination with the terrorist organization Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, also known as “al Shabaab,” “to target Americans both at home and abroad.” The terrorist organization, which according to authorities, 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.”
The indictment was first reported by NBC News. Abdullah, who was arrested in the Philippines in July 2019, was also responsible for an alleged role in a 2019 hotel attack in Nairobi. He has since been transferred from the Philippines to New York and is expected to be arraigned Wednesday afternoon in federal court.
“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,” 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. 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.”
Prosecutors allege that between 2017 and 2019, Abdi Abdullah attended a flight school in the Philippines, where he obtained his pilot’s license. Around the same time, he allegedly researched various ways to hijack an airliner and breach a cockpit door—a similar maneuver used during the 9/11 attacks. He also looked for information about other airplane security issues and sought “information about the tallest building in a major U.S. city, and information about how to obtain a U.S. visa,” prosecutors said.
The indictment, however, does not identify any city or building in Abdi Abdullah’s plans.
Officials say he was conducting research on American skyscrapers as potential targets—but the indictment does not identify any city or building in his plans. Abdi Abdullah also allegedly “searched for and consumed al Shabaab and al Qaeda propaganda, including propaganda about al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States.”
The indictment notes that others were involved in the foiled plot, including someone who is expected to be arrested and brought to New York.
“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," FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement. “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.”
In July 2019, several Filipino news outlets reported Abdi Abdullah's arrest—though the details of his alleged plot against the United States were not known at the time. The indictment notes that the Jan. 15, 2019 attack in Nairobi, which killed 12 people—including a U.S. national and a 9/11 survivor—was also perpetrated by al Shabaab. Abdi Abdullah allegedly began coordinating that attack at the direction of a senior al Shabaab commander in 2016.
According to Rappler, Abdi Abdullah possessed a bomb and had bomb-making equipment at the time of his arrest.