U.S. prosecutors said on Wednesday they had charged a Kenyan man with terrorism-related offences including conspiring for a 9/11-style airplane hijacking on an American target on behalf of the al-Shabaab militant group.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan and the U.S. Justice Department said that Cholo Abdi Abdullah, aged 30, was arrested in the Philippines in July 2019 and transferred to the United States on Tuesday to face six federal charges related to alleged terrorism.
At a hearing held via electronic link on Wednesday morning, Abdullah told a U.S. magistrate judge he was pleading not guilty to all of the charges. His defense lawyer agreed with the judge that Abdullah should remain in custody pending a hearing in January.
The Justice Department said Abdullah, acting at the direction of an unnamed senior al-Shabaab commander, traveled in 2016 to the Philippines to enroll in a flight school to train for a possible 9/11-style attack.
Research on airplane hijacking
The al-Shabaab commander in question was previously responsible for planning a January 2019 attack on a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, in which more than 20 people were killed, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said that between 2017 and 2019, Abdullah attended the flight school on “various occasions” and ultimately completed tests to obtain a pilot’s license.
While training to be a pilot, Abdullah also researched how to hijack a commercial airlines flight, including how to breach a locked cockpit door from the cabin, they said.
He also researched information about the tallest building in an unidentified U.S. city and how to obtain a U.S. visa.
Abdullah faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison, but a possible maximum sentence of life.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Somalia in the waning days of his presidency has triggered dismay rom some Somalis, who appealed to the incoming U.S. president to reverse the decision.
Toll on counter-terrorism efforts
“The U.S. decision to pull troops out of Somalia at this critical stage in the successful fight against al-Shabaab and their global terrorist network is extremely regrettable,” Senator Ayub Ismail Yusuf told Reuters in a statement, referring to the al Qaida-linked al Shabaab insurgency.
“U.S. troops have made a huge contribution and had great impact on the training and operational effectiveness of Somali soldiers,” said Yusuf, a member of Somalia’s Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. He tagged U.S. President-elect Joe Biden in a tweet criticising the decision.
The Somali government could not immediately be reached for comment on the decision to withdraw almost all the roughly 700 U.S. troops by January 15, 2021.
Somalia’s fragile internationally backed government is due to hold parliamentary elections in December 2020 and national elections in early February next year, a precursor to the planned drawdown of the 17,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force.
U.S. troops have been in Somalia, mostly supporting Somali Special Forces known as Danab in operations against al Shabaab, whose attacks in nations like Kenya and Uganda have killed hundreds of civilians, including Americans.
Danab punches above its weight because regular forces are often poorly trained and equipped, frequently desert their posts or become enmeshed in power struggles between the national and regional governments.
If the withdrawal is permanent, “it will have a huge toll on counter-terrorism efforts,” said Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, who served for three years until 2019 as the Danab commander.
He fought alongside U.S. forces, he said, and during his command two Americans and more than a hundred of his own men had died. Both U.S. and Somali forces opposed the withdrawal, he said.