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Kenyan National Charged With Attempting 911 Style Attack

Audrey Strauss, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, John C. Demers, the Assistant Attorney General for National Security, William F. Sweeney Jr., the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), and Dermot Shea, the Commissioner of the Police Department for the City of New York (“NYPD”), announced the unsealing of an Indictment charging CHOLO ABDI ABDULLAH with six counts of terrorism-related offenses based on his activities as an operative of the foreign terrorist organization al Shabaab, including conspiring to hijack aircraft in order to conduct a 9/11-style attack in the United States. ABDULLAH was arrested in July 2019 in the Philippines on local charges, and was subsequently transferred on December 15, 2020, in connection with his deportation from the Philippines, to the custody of U.S. law enforcement for prosecution on the charges in the Indictment. ABDULLAH was transported from the Phillippines to the United States yesterday, and is expected to be presented today before Magistrate Judge Robert W. Lehrburger in Manhattan federal court. The case is assigned to United States District Judge Analisa Torres.

The charges in the Indictment unsealed today arise out of a coordinated scheme by the terrorist organization Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, commonly known as “al Shabaab,” to target Americans both at home and abroad. Al Shabaab, which 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. Recently, al Shabaab has embarked on a string of terrorist attacks as part of an operation purportedly in response to the United States’ decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which the group has dubbed “Operation Jerusalem Will Never be Judaized.” In particular, these terrorist attacks perpetrated by al Shabaab include an attack on January 15, 2019 at a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 21 people, including a U.S. national and survivor of al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, New York; a September 30, 2019 attack on a U.S. military facility in Somalia; and a January 5, 2020 attack on another U.S. facility in Kenya, in which three Americans were killed.

As alleged in the Indictment, ABDULLAH was an al Shabaab operative who participated in a plot to hijack commercial aircraft and crash them into a building in the United States. Beginning in 2016, at the direction of a senior al Shabaab commander who was responsible for, among other things, planning the 2019 Nairobi hotel attack, ABDULLAH traveled to the Philippines and enrolled in a flight school there (the “Flight School”), for the purpose of obtaining training for carrying out the 9/11-style attack. Between 2017 and 2019, ABDULLAH attended the Flight School on various occasions and obtained pilot’s training, ultimately completing the tests necessary to obtain his pilot’s license.

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.

Thanks to the extraordinary work of the FBI, law enforcement authorities foiled this plot. ABDULLAH has remained in custody since his initial arrest in the Philippines.

ABDULLAH, 30, of Kenya, is charged with conspiring to provide and providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization (al Shabaab), conspiring to murder U.S. nationals, conspiring to commit aircraft piracy, conspiring to destroy aircraft, and conspiring to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries. ABDULLAH faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. The specific penalties for each of the charges is reflected in the chart below. The maximum potential sentence in this case is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by a judge.

Ms. Strauss praised the outstanding efforts of the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, which principally consists of agents from the FBI and detectives from the NYPD. Ms. Strauss also thanked the FBI Legal Attaché Offices in Nairobi, Kenya, and Manila, the Philippines; the FBI’s Hudson Valley Resident Agency; the New York State Police; the Counterterrorism Section of the Department of Justice’s National Security Division; the Office of International Affairs of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division; the U.S. Department of Defense; the Kenyan Directorate of Criminal Investigations, including the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit and the Joint Terrorism Task Force-Kenya; the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Kenya; the Philippine National Police; the Philippine Department of Justice; the Joint Terrorism Financial Investigations Group-Philippines; and the Philippine Bureau of Immigration, for their assistance.

This prosecution is being handled by the Office’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys David W. Denton, Jr., Sidhardha Kamaraju, and Elinor Tarlow are in charge of the prosecution, with assistance from Trial Attorneys Jason Denney and Rebecca Magnone of the Counterterrorism Section.

The charges in the Indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

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