Cholo Abdi Abdullah

Cholo Abdi Abdullah, the Kenyan national who has been charged in the United States with an attempt to hijack an aircraft to undertake a 9/11 style attack on behalf of Al-Shabaab.

| Pool | Nation Media Group

On the trail of Cholo, the Isiolo man accused of plotting terrorism in US

 In the dusty town of Isiolo, about 300 metres past the County Referral Hospital on the Isiolo-Modogashe Road, a cabro-paved diversion on the right leads to the Tuluroba market.

As one approaches the market, about 200 metres from the diversion, new buildings dripping with new paint punctuate the monotonous shrubbery of the semi-arid north, their roofs like little oases in a desert. The place is bustling. Full of life.

But the road on the left is one that would never escape notice. It runs along a perimeter wall of the first building on the left and leads further down to a home ringed with a live fence of euphorbia with an entrance blocked with a semi-permanent mabati gate. On the right side of the road are a few shops whose main customers are workers at a construction site near Alrahman Mosque.

The fenced home with a mabati gate is our destination. We arrive unannounced, much to the discomfort of the occupants of the compound, which comprises a three-room timber house on the right and two others on the left. A large tree takes the pride of place at the centre of the compound, offering the much-needed shade from the scorching sun.

Three women sit under the shade, conversing. One has a young child. They pensively assess the intruders. They need to.

This is the home of Cholo Abdi Abdullah, the now infamous Kenyan who days ago was charged in the United States for plotting a 9/11-style attack on America. The 30-year-old hit the headlines this week after he was arraigned in a New York court for six terrorism-related offences arising from his activities as an alleged Al-Shabaab operative, including conspiring to hijack aircraft and crash it into an American target.

Lover of football

A lover of football — especially the English Premier League, young Cholo would often be spotted in video dens watching matches. He is an Arsenal fan, say villagers.

The news of his arraignment in the US has come as a shock to many who remember him as a harmless youth.

“I was shocked to read his story in the newspaper because I thought he was just working in Nairobi,” says a female neighbour.

At the time of his arrest in Iba, The Philippines on July 1, 2019, he was in possession of a loaded pistol, a magazine, an explosive, a grenade and bomb-making material, according to the US Federal Bureau of Investigations. He was charged with conspiring to kill US citizens, planning to commit aircraft piracy and acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries.

And so here, in the pensive Isiolo homestead where he learnt to walk, we introduce ourselves as journalists and state our mission to the women resting under a tree shade in the wake of the shocking news from the US: We have come to enquire about their son.

One of the women is Cholo’s mother, who also runs a shop opposite the home. After she realises we were journalists and are there to enquire about the suspected terrorist, she becomes distraught and clums up. Cholo is her second-born son, and he left the village five years ago only to turn up thousands of kilometres away from home. And in jail.

“I reported the matter to police and they are the only ones who can share the information with you,” she informs us.

As we ponder how to get her to open up, a man who says he is Cholo’s elder brother, whom we had earlier met while entering the home, comes back hostile and ejects us from the compound.

And, with that, even though we have seen the humble place that Cholo calls home, we still have scant details about his childhood.

We wander in the village and ask people about their infamous son. No one wants to be named for fear of antagonising the family, but also to avoid possible run-ins with the law.

Quiet youth

Most of those we talk to remember him as a quiet youth who loved sports and was bright in school. He schooled at St Kizito Primary School in Isiolo town and later joined St Paul’s Kiwanjani Secondary about two kilometres from home, where he sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam in 2010. We, however, could not establish the grade he scored, but residents say it was either a B- or a C+. He thereafter joined a university in Nairobi where he reportedly studied journalism.

Efforts to get a report about his disappearance from police turn out futile. County Police Commander Joseph Kigen would not talk to us, as he is “held up in a meeting”.

Sources say that Cholo vanished into thin air months after graduating from university.

It is believed he sneaked into Somalia like other youth from the county, with hopes of changing fortunes for their families.

He entered the Philippines in 2016 and enrolled at the All-Asia Aviation Academy, where he trained as a commercial pilot between 2017 and 2018. It is not clear who was financing his studies, but the family wasn’t.

In a recent statement to ABC News, a spokesperson from the All-Asia Aviation Academy said: “As a student, (Cholo) displayed no unusual behaviour and during his period as a pilot trainee for almost one year, he came in and out of the country without raising any red flags, including the regular compliance documentation that all students had to undergo with the different government offices here in the Philippines. His arrest and involvement with such a terrible organisation after the investigation results were disclosed to us definitely came as a surprise. We’re glad that he was taken into custody.”

On its website All-Asia Aviation Academy lists Air Kenya among major airlines that have employed its alumni, but the company refuted the claims in an e-mail to the Sunday Nation yesterday.

Cholo enrolled at the aviation school allegedly on the direction of a senior Al-Shabaab commander who was later blamed for planning the January 2019 terrorist attack on the Dusit D2 complex in Nairobi. He becomes the second high-profile member of Al-Shaabab from Isiolo County to hit international headlines — after Ali Salim Gichunge, one of the terrorists who masterminded the Dusit attack, and who grew up in Isiolo before relocating to Mombasa and later to Lamu.

Gichunge, alias Farouk, had roots in Isiolo’s Kulamawe ‘Kwa Franco’ area and is believed to have been radicalised while working at a cyber cafe in the town.

These two, however, are a tiny fraction of Kenya’s religious radicalisation problem. A 2011 United Nations report estimates that there are 200 to 500 Kenyans, mostly Muslim youth, who have joined Al-Shabaab’s campaign against the African Union forces in Somalia, or who have taken part in terrorist attacks within Kenya.

Kenya has experienced a string of terrorist attacks in recent years and continues to suffer regular strikes on police posts and the public along the border with Somalia.

Last evening, security agencies in Wajir County were investigating the abduction of a chief and four locals by suspected Al-Shabaab militants in Khorof Harar. A security brief shared among senior security officers in the North Eastern region indicated the chief was abducted on Friday evening at Gumerey trading centre, 12 kilometres north of Khorof Harar.

Switch off  phones

“Al-Shabaab entered the centre and ordered residents to switch off their phones before lecturing them,” reads the report, which also indicates that the attackers were numbered about 20 and left the centre at about 8.30pm.

The report identifies the abducted chief as Omar Aden but warns that he has been on the radar as a Shabaab sympathiser.

In May, suspected Al-Shabaab militants staged an attack on Khorof Kharar Police Camp and also destroyed a communication mast belonging to Safaricom. And atleast six people, including a Kenya Police reservist, were killed by the militants there in April.

Guyo Haro, a contract researcher based in Isiolo, notes that Al-Shabaab have found the area a fertile ground to radicalise and recruit young people due to its strategic location outside what is generally perceived as the radicalisation zone, away from the violent extremism hotspots of Nairobi and the coastal and northeastern frontiers.

Sources in Isiolo told the Sunday Nation that that increased use of drugs, poverty and unemployment have made it easy for extremists to recruit and radicalise the youth.

According to a recent survey by the Frontier Counties Development Council (FCDC), youth in the eight counties of Isiolo, Marsabit, Wajir, Mandera, Turkana, Garissa, Lamu and Tana River constitute 29 per cent of the population, and suffer an unemployment rate of about 53.6 per cent.

In 2014, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims estimated that around 700 “returnees” — mostly between the ages of 18 and 45 — were living in Kenya, having returned from Somalia, where they had trained and fought with Al-Shabaab.

These returnees, having witnessed extreme violence, have become hardened and have acquired skills in the use of weapons and explosives as well as networks with jihadists.

Uncertainty still surrounds the future of Cholo after federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged him, but the US is digging in to send him to prison for a long time.

“This chilling callback to the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 is a stark reminder that terrorist groups like Al-Shabab remain committed to killing US citizens,” Audrey Strauss, the acting US attorney in Manhattan, said in a statement.

Terrorism

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the indictment was the latest reminder that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain a threat to the US nearly two decades after terrorists brought down the Twin Towers in Manhattan and hit the Pentagon with commercial aircraft.

“This is now very hard evidence that we may have short memories, but Al-Qaeda has a very long one,” Hoffman said. “They’re convinced that they can throttle the global economy by once again targeting commercial aviation, which is why they keep coming back to this tactic.”

Cholo began the process of enrolling in a flight school in the Philippines in 2016, received training and ultimately completed the tests necessary to obtain his pilot’s license, according to the indictment.

He also researched methods of hijacking a commercial airliner, such as how to breach a cockpit door from the outside, the indictment charged.

In addition, the indictment says he did research about the tallest building in a major US city and sought information about how to obtain a US visa. The indictment does not identify the city or the building.

Cholo has pleaded not guilty to the six-count indictment, and a judge ordered him detained.

He is the second Al-Shabab operative to have been arrested while taking flying lessons in the last two years: Another was arrested more recently in an African country, The New York Times, quoting intelligence officials, reported in March.

Manase Otsialo contributed reporting from Mandera. Additional reporting by the New York Times.