Did Al-Shabaab Attempt a 9/11-Style Aircraft Attack Targeting the United States?

By Robert Chesney
Wednesday, December 16, 2020, 2:09 PM

Disturbing news on the counterterrorism front this morning: The Justice Department has announced the extradition of Kenyan national Cholo Abdi Abdullah from the Philippines, in order to face charges stemming from an alleged 9/11-style plot to hijack and crash an aircraft. This story is notable (beyond the normal level for terrorism-related prosecutions) for several reasons.

1. Is al-Shabaab turning its focus toward operations inside the United States?

The Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab—which is deemed by the U.S. government to be an “associated force” of al-Qaeda and thus within the scope of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF)—has a long track record of conducting operations outside Somalia, but most of these attacks have unfolded in Kenya. Al-Shabaab also has repeatedly called for its followers to kill Americans, but it does not appear from the public record that the group previously has attempted to conduct an operation inside the U.S. Today’s announcement from the Justice Department indicates that al-Shabaab does in fact aspire to carry out such attacks and, in that respect, poses more than just a regional threat.

According to the indictment, Abdullah was working at the direction of a “senior al Shabaab commander who was responsible for, among other things, planning” the notorious Nairobi hotel attack in 2019 (during which an American was killed, and which al-Shabaab proclaimed was retaliation for the U.S. decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem). The indictment alleges that, in 2016, this al-Shabaab leader directed Abdullah to obtain flight training and to otherwise begin preparations for an aircraft-based attack, and that Abdullah proceeded to get his pilot’s license in the Philippines between 2017 and 2019. Abdullah at this time also conducted research to identify tall buildings in U.S. cities, to learn how to get a visa to the U.S. and to learn how to force open cockpit doors from the outside.

Notably, the indictment does not directly state that the al-Shabaab commander directed Abdullah to aim for an operation inside the United States, so the door is open to the possibility that the commander instead gave him a more general charge. That said, the strong implication is that the order was to train in order to conduct a 9/11-type attack in America, or at least one targeting American citizens in a location far removed from East Africa.

To that extent, the indictment is a worrying indicator that al-Shabaab’s operational ambitions are broader than some assume. It does not follow that al-Shabaab already is or soon will become analogous to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during its external operations heyday under Anwar al-Awlaki, but it is a red flag nonetheless.

2. The future of U.S. military operations in Somalia?

The United States continues to conduct kinetic strikes in Somalia against al-Shabaab targets, as exemplified by last week’s news that U.S. Africa Command has conducted 50 strikes there thus far in 2020. And it almost certainly will continue to do so in the near future, despite the Trump administration’s decision to soon pull out the majority of the 700 service members deployed there. Even without al-Shabaab turning its operational focus toward more remote U.S.-related targets, it is clear that the Trump administration hoped to continue such operations from nearby locations, and it is doubtful the Biden administration would have charted a different course. All that said: News of an al-Shabaab plan to conduct a 9/11-type attack in the U.S., or otherwise targeting the United States, will go far toward ensuring that the airstrikes continue.

3. The “new normal” for terrorism-related captures is civilian criminal prosecution?

One of the most striking things about the Justice Department’s announcement is the quiet reception it has received. I’ve seen no howls of outrage demanding that Abdullah be dispatched to Guantanamo Bay rather than, heaven forbid, brought to the Southern District of New York; no complaints about his arraignment or the fact that he now has counsel; and no demands that the trial of this AUMF-covered individual instead take place before a military commission. Is that just a reflection of the fact that this is unfolding while Trump remains in office, and thus those most likely to lodge such complaints lack the additional spur of partisanship to go out of their way to articulate them? Is it instead a reflection of the fact that the civilian criminal prosecution system has a deeply impressive track record, in stark contrast to the endless challenges that beset the military commissions system? It’s impossible to say for now. But with the Biden administration on its way in 2021, and with other such cases no doubt awaiting the country in the future, the United States may soon find out.