Big US, Canadian shopping malls: Next terrorist target?

A new video threat from the Al Qaeda-linked extremist group Al Shabab calls for terrorist attacks on major shopping malls in the US, Canada, and Britain. Malls are adding extra security.

Eric Miller/REUTERS
Visitors pose for a family photograph in front the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says he takes seriously a threat by Somali-based Islamist militants against shopping malls, including the Mall of America.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says he’s “confident” that big shopping malls will enhance security measures in the wake of new threats of attack by Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda-linked extremist group based in Somalia.

Still, Secretary Johnson said on CNN Sunday, "Anytime a terrorist organization calls for an attack on a specific place, we've got to take that seriously." Johnson spoke on five Sunday morning TV news programs.

On Saturday, Al Shabab released an online video calling for attacks on western shopping centers, including the Mall of America in Minnesota, the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, and Oxford Street in London.

In the video, a man with a British-sounding accent and full face covering calls on supporters of Al Shabab to attack "American or Jewish-owned" Western shopping centers, the BBC reports.

There is precedent for such attacks. In 2013, terrorists attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 60 people. Al Shabab has also claimed responsibility for recent attacks at a Mogadishu hotel, which killed more than 25 people.

“Washington fears the group,” notes a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report, particularly because it “has successfully recruited members of the Somali-American diaspora” in order to “orchestrate strikes on US soil.”

Dozens of people from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, many of them Somali-Americans, have traveled or attempted to travel overseas to support groups such as Islamic State or Al Shabab since 2007, according to prosecutors.

"I’m very concerned about the serious potential threat of independent actors here in the United States. We’ve seen this now in Europe. We’ve seen this in Canada," Johnson said.

The US has gone after Al Shabab’s leadership, reportedly targeting the group’s intelligence chief, Abdishakur Tahlili, in an airstrike two months ago.

Major malls quickly sought to calm fears about any perceived threat of terrorist attack.

"As always, we take any potential threat seriously and respond appropriately. Mall of America has implemented extra security precautions, some may be noticeable to guests, and others won't be," Mall of America said in a statement. "We will continue to follow the situation, along with law enforcement, and will remain vigilant as we always do in similar situations."

The West Edmonton Mall issued a similar statement Sunday. “We will continue to follow the situation, along with law enforcement, and will remain vigilant as we always do in similar situations. The safety and security of our guests, employees and tenants remains our top priority,” the statement said. 

Still, Johnson said on CNN, if anyone is planning to go to the Mall of America, “they've got to be particularly careful." 

"There will be enhanced security there, but public vigilance, public awareness and public caution in situations like this is particularly important, and it's the environment we're in, frankly,” he said. “This most recent video release is emblematic of a new phase that we're in and so doing things here in the homeland has become critical to deal with this new global terrorist threat that we face."

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