How Secure Are American Malls in the Wake of al-Shabaab’s Threat? Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

How Secure Are American Malls in the Wake of al-Shabaab’s Threat?

Security has been heightened at the Mall of America in the wake of a video posted by Somalia-based Islamist terrorist group al-Shabaab last Saturday, asking Western Muslims to “answer the call” of jihad by attacking “American- and Jewish-owned” shopping malls in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

According to CNN, in the United Kingdom, two Westfield malls in Stratford and White City, as well as Oxford Street in London, were also threatened, along with the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada. While several other malls and shopping areas in North America and Europe were also listed as targets in the video, CNN is only naming the malls that, so far, have responded publicly to the threats.

The biggest threat was to the biggest mall—the 4.87-million-sq.-ft. Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. Approximately  2.77 million sq. ft. of the mall’s space is reserved for retail, including more than 520 in-line stores; several department stores, including Nordstrom’s, Macy’s and Sears, and more than 50 restaurants. The property also contains a theme park. More than 42 million people visit the mall each year, four out of 10 of whom are tourists.

The 77-minute al-Shabaab video, conducted by a man in a military jacket whose face was completely covered by a scarf, provided the coordinates for the Mall of America, to make it easier to find for would-be terrorists, notes The Jewish Press. The video has been removed from YouTube.

The al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the deadly attack at a Nairobi, Kenya, mall owned by Westgate in 2013 that killed at least 67 people. Since then, the group has largely been quiet, with some experts even speculating that it is dying out.

The Mall of America and West Edmonton Mall are both owned by the Triple Five Group, founded by the Ghermezian Brothers, a Jewish Iranian-Canadian family that has developed large shopping malls throughout the world, reports The Jewish Press. Security has been heightened at both facilities, as well as in the surrounding municipalities.

The representatives for the Mall of America said in a statement that they are monitoring the events and increasing security at the site, notes Slate. “As always, we take any potential threat seriously and respond appropriately,” the statement said. “Mall of America has implemented extra security precautions, some may be noticeable to guests, and others won’t be. We will continue to follow the situation, along with law enforcement, and will remain vigilant as we always do in similar situations.”

A statement was also issued jointly by the Bloomington, Minn., police department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and other unnamed groups, reports the Wall Street Journal. While the statement acknowledges “there is no credible threat associated with Mall of America,” it also notes that law enforcement officials and the mall itself will “evaluate this and other information as it becomes available.”

Al-Shabaab’s threat comes at a bad time for the U.S. government as a congressional impasse over funding for the Department of Homeland Security has made an agency shutdown likely to begin on Friday, Feb. 27. If the agency shuts down, approximately 30,000 of its 230,000 employees would be furloughed, according to the New York Times. The rest of the staff would be deemed essential and expected to continue reporting for work without pay.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson discussed the situation with several media outlets over the weekend. Speaking on ABC’s This Week, Johnson noted that Islamist militant groups “are now publicly calling for attacks either through the internet, through videos, through publications, which means that we need to respond militarily, but we also have to have a whole government approach through law enforcement, homeland security and frankly countering violent extremism efforts here in the homeland in communities. We’re in a new phase now and I’m afraid that this most recent video release reflects that.”

 

Meanwhile, he told CNS News that the al-Shabaab threat is “all the more reason why I need a budget.” In a New York Times interview, he called it “indulging in a fantasy to believe you can shut down the Department of Homeland Security and there be no impact to homeland security itself.” On CNN, he said that while “Americans should still feel that they are free to associate, they are free to go to public gatherings…I would say that if anyone is planning to go to the Mall of America today, they’ve got to be particularly careful.”

Experts believe that al-Shabaab has resurfaced largely in response to the Somali cause being overshadowed by other Islamist militant groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. “What’s behind al-Shabaab’s mall-attack video?” asks The Guardian. “Fear that it’s no longer relevant.” In addition, the United States is likely being targeted in retaliation for al-Shabaab’s longtime leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, having been killed in a U.S. drone strike in southern Somalia last September.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul area also serves as home to the largest group of Somali immigrants in the United States, with a population that has grown in the past 20 years to more than 50,000, reports the New York Times. Not only have most of the several Americans who have gone to fight in Somalia been from Minnesota, but Al-Shabaab has stepped up recruiting efforts there, targeting boys as young as 15, according to NPR’s All Things Considered.

Whatever the reason for the threats, the Mall of America has been targeted before, notes the Wall Street Journal, including by Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11, and as NREI has noted, the nation’s more than 1,200 shopping malls being potential targets has long been a concern of the retail real estate industry.

While many shopping malls are upgrading their security systems and installing high-tech surveillance gadgets,” the most visible efforts on the part of the retail industry … have been centered on lobbying for an extension to the terrorism insurance backstop,” reported NREI. “Most security experts agree that the most effective defenses are human. They include training and upgrading security staffs enlisting the help of retail employees and dealing frankly with the public about the threat.”

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the Home Office issued a statement noting that the country’s assessment of the threat of a terror attack is already at “severe.” “That means that a terrorist attack is ‘highly likely’ and the public should remain vigilant, but there is no intelligence to suggest one is imminent,” said the statement.

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