Kenyan National Indicted for Conspiring to Hijack Aircraft on Behalf of the Al Qaeda-Affiliated Terrorist Organization Al Shabaab

Cholo Abdi Abdullah Obtained Pilot Training and Researched How to Hijack Aircraft in Order to Conduct a 9/11-Style Attack at the Direction of al Shabaab

The Department of Justice announced the unsealing of an indictment charging Cholo Abdi Abdullah with six counts of terrorism-related offenses arising from 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 Dec. 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.

“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.  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,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.  “We owe a debt of gratitude to the detectives, agents, analysts, and prosecutors who are responsible for this defendant’s arrest.”

“Today’s announcement shows that foreign terrorist organizations, like al Shabaab, remain determined to plot, plan, and conspire to commit terrorist acts across the globe against the United States, our interests and our foreign partners,” said FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Jill Sanborn.  “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.  The charges announced today against Cholo Abdi Abdullah eerily draws parallels to the heinous attacks on this country on September 11, 2001.  The FBI, along with our U.S. Government and international partners, 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 whomever is responsible.” 

 “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,” said Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss.  “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.  Thanks to the outstanding investigative work of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the FBI’s global partnerships with law enforcement agencies around the world, Abdullah’s plot was detected before he could achieve his deadly aspirations, and now he faces federal terrorism charges in a U.S. court.”

 “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,” said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. “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.”

 “As alleged in the federal indictment against him, Cholo Abdi Abdullah had obtained pilot training and begun plotting a terrorist attack against a target in the United States,” said NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea.  “But the outstanding work of our NYPD detectives and federal agents of the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, along with all of our law enforcement partners, put an end to those plans and ensured that no one would be harmed.”

As alleged in the Indictment,[1] unsealed today in Manhattan federal court:

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 Jan. 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 Sept. 30, 2019, attack on a U.S. military facility in Somalia; and a Jan. 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 arrest on the local charges 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.

Assistant Attorney General Demers and 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. They also thanked the FBI Hudson Valley office and the New York State Police.  Ms. Strauss also thanked the FBI Legal Attaché Offices in Nairobi, Kenya, and Manila, the Philippines; 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, the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, the Joint Terrorism Task Force-Kenya, and the Kenyan Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions; and the Philippine National Police, Philippine Department of Justice, the Joint Terrorism Financial Investigations Group – Philippines, and 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 the Counterterrorism Section of the National Security Division.

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


[1] As the introductory phrase signifies, the entirety of the text of the Indictment and the description of the Indictment set forth herein are only allegations, and every fact described should be treated as an allegation.

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    What GAO Found Protecting the nation's pipeline systems from security threats is a responsibility shared by both the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and private industry stakeholders. Prior to issuing a cybersecurity directive in May 2021, TSA's efforts included issuing voluntary security guidelines and security reviews of privately owned and operated pipelines. GAO reports in 2018 and 2019 identified some weaknesses in the agency's oversight and guidance, and made 15 recommendations to address these weaknesses. TSA concurred with GAO's recommendations and has addressed most of them, such as clarifying portions of its Pipeline Security Guidelines improving its monitoring of security review performance, and assessing staffing needs. As of June 2021, TSA had not fully addressed two pipeline cybersecurity-related weaknesses that GAO previously identified. These weaknesses correspond to three of the 15 recommendations from GAO's 2018 and 2019 reports. Incomplete information for pipeline risk assessments. GAO identified factors that likely limit the usefulness of TSA's risk assessment methodology for prioritizing pipeline security reviews. For example, TSA's risk assessment did not include information consistent with critical infrastructure risk mitigation, such as information on natural hazards and cybersecurity risks. GAO recommended that TSA develop data sources relevant to pipeline threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences of disruptions. As of June 2021, TSA had not fully addressed this recommendation. Aged protocols for responding to pipeline security incidents. GAO reported in June 2019 that TSA had not revised its 2010 Pipeline Security and Incident Recovery Protocol Plan to reflect changes in pipeline security threats, including those related to cybersecurity. GAO recommended that TSA periodically review, and update its 2010 plan. TSA has begun taking action in response to this recommendation, but has not fully addressed it, as of June 2021. TSA's May 2021 cybersecurity directive requires that certain pipeline owner/operators assess whether their current operations are consistent with TSA's Guidelines on cybersecurity, identify any gaps and remediation measures, and report the results to TSA and others. TSA's July 2021 cybersecurity directive mandates that certain pipeline owner/operators implement cybersecurity mitigation measures; develop a Cybersecurity Contingency Response Plan in the event of an incident; and undergo an annual cybersecurity architecture design review, among other things. These recent security directives are important requirements for pipeline owner/operators because TSA's Guidelines do not include key mitigation strategies for owner/operators to reference when reviewing their cyber assets. TSA officials told GAO that a timely update to address current cyber threats is appropriate and that they anticipate updating the Guidelines over the next year. Why GAO Did This Study The nation's pipelines are vulnerable to cyber-based attacks due to increased reliance on computerized systems. In May 2021 malicious cyber actors deployed ransomware against Colonial Pipeline's business systems. The company subsequently disconnected certain systems that monitor and control physical pipeline functions so that they would not be compromised. This statement discusses TSA's actions to address previous GAO findings related to weaknesses in its pipeline security program and TSA's guidance to pipeline owner/operators. It is based on prior GAO products issued in December 2018, June 2019, and March 2021, along with updates on actions TSA has taken to address GAO's recommendations as of June 2021. To conduct the prior work, GAO analyzed TSA documents; interviewed TSA officials, industry association representatives, and a sample of pipeline operators selected based on type of commodity transported and other factors; and observed TSA security reviews. GAO also reviewed TSA's May and July 2021 Pipeline Security Directives, TSA's Pipeline Security Guidelines, and three federal security alerts issued in July 2020, May 2021, and June 2021.
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  • Prime Healthcare Services and Two Doctors Agree to Pay $37.5 Million to Settle Allegations of Kickbacks, Billing for a Suspended Doctor, and False Claims for Implantable Medical Hardware
    In Crime News
    One of the largest hospital systems in the nation and two of its doctors will pay $37.5 million to resolve violations of the False Claims Act and the California False Claims Act. The settlement is a joint resolution with the U.S. Department of Justice and the California Department of Justice.
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  • Doctor Sentenced to Prison for Role in Unlawful Distribution of Controlled Substances
    In Crime News
    An Ohio physician was sentenced to 40 months in prison today for his role in illegally distributing controlled substances.
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  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken At the Launch of the U.S.-Germany Dialogue on Holocaust Issues with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Remarks to the Community of Democracies 20th Anniversary Virtual Conference
    In Human Health, Resources and Services
    Stephen Biegun, Deputy [Read More…]
  • Unaccompanied Children: Actions Needed to Improve Grant Application Reviews and Oversight of Care Facilities
    In U.S GAO News
    The Office of Refugee Resettlement's (ORR) grant announcements soliciting care providers for unaccompanied children—those without lawful immigration status and without a parent or guardian in the U.S. available to provide care and physical custody for them—lack clarity about what state licensing information is required. Further, ORR does not systematically confirm the information submitted by applicants or document a review of their past performance on ORR grants, when applicable, according to GAO's analysis of ORR documents and interviews with ORR officials. The grant announcements do not specify how applicants without a state license should show license eligibility—a criterion for receiving an ORR grant—or specify what past licensing allegations and concerns they must report. In addition, the extent to which ORR staff verify applicants' licensing information is unclear. In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, ORR awarded grants to approximately 14 facilities that were unable to serve children for 12 or more months because they remained unlicensed. In addition, ORR did not provide any documentation that staff conducted a review of past performance for the nearly 70 percent of applicants that previously held ORR grants. Without addressing these issues, ORR risks awarding grants to organizations that cannot obtain a state license or that have a history of poor performance. State licensing agencies regularly monitor ORR-funded facilities, but according to GAO's survey of these agencies, their information sharing with ORR is limited (see figure). State licensing agencies and ORR staff both said that improved information sharing would benefit their monitoring of facilities. Without such improvements, ORR may lack information about ongoing issues at its facilities. Key Survey Responses on Information-Sharing with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) by the 23 State Agencies That Licensed ORR-Funded Facilities in Fall 2019 ORR requires grantees to take corrective action to address noncompliance it identifies through monitoring, but ORR has not met some of its monitoring goals or notified grantees of the need for corrective actions in a timely manner. For example, under ORR regulations, each facility is to be audited for compliance with standards to prevent and respond to sexual abuse and harassment of children by February 22, 2019, but by April 2020, only 67 of 133 facilities had been audited. In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, ORR also did not meet its policy goals to visit each facility at least every 2 years, or to submit a report to facilities on any corrective actions identified within 30 days of a visit. Without further action, ORR will continue to not meet its own monitoring goals, which are designed to ensure the safety and well-being of children in its care. ORR is responsible for the care and placement of unaccompanied children in its custody, which it provides through grants to state-licensed care provider facilities. ORR was appropriated $1.3 billion for this program in fiscal year 2020. GAO was asked to review ORR's grant making process and oversight of its grantees. This report examines (1) how ORR considers state licensing issues and past performance in its review of grant applications; (2) state licensing agencies' oversight of ORR grantees, and how ORR and states share information; and (3) how ORR addresses grantee noncompliance. GAO reviewed ORR grant announcements and applications for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. GAO conducted a survey of 29 state licensing agencies in states with ORR facilities, and reviewed ORR monitoring documentation and corrective action reports. GAO also reviewed ORR guidance and policies, as well as relevant federal laws and regulations, and interviewed ORR officials. GAO is making eight recommendations to ORR on improving clarity in its grant announcements, communication with state licensing agencies, and monitoring of its grantees. ORR agreed with all eight recommendations. For more information, contact Kathryn A. Larin at (202) 512-7215 or larink@gao.gov.
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  • Memphis Physicians Agree To Pay More Than $340,000 for Alleged Overbilling
    In Crime News
    Doctor Shoaib Qureshi, Doctor Imran Mirza, Memphis Primary Care Specialists, Lunceford Family Health Center, and Getwell Family Medicine agreed to pay $341,690 to resolve allegations that they violated the False Claims Act by knowingly charging Medicare for services rendered by nurse practitioners at the higher reimbursement rate for physician services, the Justice Department announced today.  
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  • Charleston County School District Agrees to Provide Language Access for Limited English Proficient Parents
    In Crime News
    Today the Justice Department announced a settlement agreement with the Charleston County School District to resolve its investigation into complaints that the school district failed to communicate essential information to thousands of Spanish-speaking, limited English proficient (LEP) parents, denying their children full and equal access to the district’s education programs and services. The Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina conducted the investigation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.
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  • New York Fisherman and Fish Dealer Charged with Conspiracy, Fraud, and Obstruction
    In Crime News
    Today, a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of New York unsealed the indictment of one fisherman, a wholesale fish dealer, and two of its managers for conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and obstruction in connection with a scheme to illegally overharvest fluke and black sea bass. All four defendants are from Montauk.
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  • Justice Department Settles Language Access and Retaliation Investigation of Courts in Fort Bend County, Texas
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department announced a settlement agreement with Fort Bend County (FBC) to improve access to court for people with limited English proficiency (LEP).
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  • On the Passing of John Pombe Magufuli
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Ned Price, Department [Read More…]
  • Statement on Misinformation on Social Media Regarding the Office of the Pardon Attorney
    In Crime News
    “Please be advised that the information circulating on social media claiming to be from Acting Pardon Attorney Rosalind Sargent-Burns is inauthentic and should not be taken seriously.  "The Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney does not have a social media presence and is not involved in any efforts to pardon individuals or groups involved with the heinous acts that took place this week in and around the U.S. Capitol."
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