Alleged Shabaab operative charged with plotting 9/11-style hijacking

Shabaab openly celebrates the 9/11 hijackings.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced yesterday that Cholo Abdi Abdullah, a 30-year-old Kenyan national, has been charged with plotting a 9/11-style attack inside the U.S. Abdullah allegedly served as an “operative” for Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa.

According to the indictment filed in the case, a Shabaab commander who is responsible for at least one terrorist attack in Kenya directed Abdullah to pursue the hijacking plot.

Abdullah traveled to the Philippines, where he took flight lessons and researched how to take control of an airliner, with the goal of crashing it into a large building inside the U.S.

Abdullah was arrested in the Philippines in July 2019. He was eventually transferred to U.S. custody on Dec. 15 and charged with several terror-related offenses.

Officials cited in the DOJ’s announcement credit the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), which includes FBI agents and New York Police Department (NYPD) detectives, as well as partner law enforcement agencies elsewhere and others, with detecting the plot.   

Plot was allegedly initiated in 2016

According to the indictment, Abdullah “began the process of enrolling in” a flight school in the Philippines “in or about December 2016.” He allegedly did so “at the direction of” the same “senior” Shabaab commander who oversaw a January 2019 hotel attack in Nairobi. Abdullah “sought to obtain pilot training, test flaws in airport security, and take other steps for hijacking a civil aircraft to use in conducting a terrorist attack on behalf of” Shabaab.

Abdullah attended the flight school from 2017 until mid-2019. Before his arrest, Abdullah completed “the tests necessary to obtain his pilot’s license.” While learning how to become a pilot, he researched “how to breach a cockpit door from the outside” and researched “information about the tallest building in a major U.S. city,” as well as how to obtain an American visa.

The indictment includes a reference to “others known and unknown, at least one of whom is expected to be first brought to and arrested in the Southern District of New York,” who were part of the conspiracy. That language may be a reference to another Shabaab operative who was reportedly arrested in Africa while learning to fly.

Any plot modeled after the 9/11 hijackings would likely involve one or more teams of hijackers, but the charges do not specify how many al Qaeda operatives were selected to take part.

Shabaab’s “Operation Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaized”

Prosecutors connect the 9/11-style plot to Shabaab’s “Operation Jerusalem Will Never be Judaized.” The Shabaab commander who allegedly directed Abdullah to pursue the hijacking also oversaw the Jan. 15, 2019 terrorist attack on a hotel complex in Nairobi, Kenya. Twenty-one people were killed in that attack, which targeted citizens of Western countries. One of the victims previously survived both the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 9/11 hijackings.

The day after that Jan. 2019 attack in Nairobi, Shabaab released a statement saying it “carried out this operation – codenamed Operation ‘Jerusalem will Never be Judaized’ – in accordance with the guidelines of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri,” who called on al Qaeda’s global membership to target “western and Zionist interests worldwide and in support of our Muslim families in Palestine.” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Shabaab says Nairobi attack carried out in accordance with Zawahiri’s guidelines.]

Although prosecutors tie Abdullah’s plotting to “Operation Jerusalem Will Never be Judaized,” the charges brought against him indicate that Shabaab actually tasked him with the hijacking a year and half before the U.S. formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in May 2018. Abdullah also allegedly began working on the hijacking about one year before President Trump announced his decision, in Dec. 2017, to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Therefore, assuming the charges are accurate, the planned hijacking was not a direct response to these American moves.

Shabaab has portrayed a series of attacks as part of “Operation Jerusalem Will Never be Judaized.” In addition to the Jan. 15, 2019 attack on the Nairobi hotel, Shabaab has also claimed that a Sept. 30, 2019 assault on a U.S. military facility in Somalia and the Jan. 5, 2020 attack on the Manda Bay Airfield (Camp Simba) in Kenya were part of the campaign. Three Americans were killed in the latter operation.  

Days after the Jan. 5 raid, Shabaab’s spokesman, Ali Mohamud Rage, released a video claiming responsibility on behalf of his organization. Rage said it was part of “Operation Jerusalem Will Never be Judaized” and reiterated that the campaign was “carried out under the guidance and direction of the leadership of al-Qaeda, foremost among them being Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, may Allah protect him.” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Deadly raid in Kenya carried out under ‘direction’ of al Qaeda leadership, Shabaab says.]

Rage also portrayed Shabaab’s recent operations as part of a string of al Qaeda attacks dating back to the 1990s, including the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, the 2000 USS Cole bombing and the 9/11 hijackings.

Given how Rage and Shabaab have openly embraced the 9/11 hijackings, it is unsurprising that the al Qaeda branch would pursue a similar terrorist operation.

Shabaab remains a part of al Qaeda’s global network

The hijacking plot is not the only example of Shabaab’s threat to aviation. In early 2016, Shabaab claimed responsibility for placing a bomb on board a passenger plane. No one was killed in the explosion, other than the terrorist who boarded with the bomb, but intelligence officials were alarmed to discover that the explosive was disguised inside a laptop. [See FDD’s Long War Journal: Shabaab claims ‘Western intelligence officials’ targeted in airliner bombing.]

Such plots raise the possibility that some within Shabaab are working with other external operatives in al Qaeda’s global network.

Shabaab and its emir, Abu Ubaydah Ahmed Umar, are openly loyal to al Qaeda’s senior leadership. The group is principally dedicated to overthrowing the Somali government, which it hopes to replace with a regime based on al Qaeda’s radical version of sharia, or Islamic law. But as a series of attacks and plots demonstrate, the al Qaeda branch also threatens countries throughout the region and even the U.S.

The Trump administration recently announced a withdrawal of American forces from Somalia. The troops will be repositioned in neighboring countries. Shabaab’s men continue to operate one of al Qaeda’s most prolific insurgencies.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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