Al Shabab threatens malls: How prepared are US security firms?

Over the past several years, the FBI has been increasing efforts to secure US malls for shoppers, including by staging mock mall attacks to test the capabilities of security forces.

Jerry Holt/Star Tribune/AP
Shoppers enter the Mall of America Sunday in Bloomington, Minn. A video purported to be by Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked rebel group Al Shabaab urged Muslims to attack shopping malls in the United States, Canada, Britain and other Western countries. The masked narrator specifically named the Mall of America in Minnesota, as well as the West Edmonton Mall in Canada and the Westfield mall in Stratford, England.

The siege of the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, 17 months ago by militants from the Al Shabab terrorist group left more than 60 people dead and much of the world in shock. On Saturday, the same group released a video calling for similar attacks against malls across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

No credible or imminent threats against malls have been confirmed, US officials say. But shoppers and security forces should remain alert, as malls could be prime targets for terrorist attacks.

Over the past several years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been upping its efforts to secure US malls for shoppers, including by staging mock mall attacks to test the capabilities of security forces.

Last year, the FBI partnered with various malls across the country to ensure preparedness, a law enforcement official told CNN. It tested the readiness of SWAT teams by staging fake attacks at malls outside of working hours.

The Lenox Square shopping mall in Atlanta was one of the establishments that held a mock terrorist attack to test and improve multi-agency response efforts and skills. The FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security partnered with the Atlanta police department and with representatives from state and local fire and emergency medical services for the drill.

The drills aimed to prepare mall security personnel for the worst and teach private and municipal security forces to work together in case of emergency.

"This was an opportunity for a city such as Atlanta to practice a coordinated response to an extensive and sustained attack against a commercial complex," Atlanta-based Special Agent Stephen Emmett said in an e-mail. "The training conducted during that exercise and the discussions and contingencies implemented afterwards, we feel, has better prepared us should such a scenario become a reality."

After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the 9/11 Commission reported that around 85 percent of the country’s infrastructure is privately owned and patrolled. However, in the case of a terrorist attack, private security forces, which are accustomed to working alone to safeguard their establishments, need to coordinate with a variety of other security and medical teams, says David Faulkner, chief of police in West Covina, Calif. His department is among those that participated in a mock attack last fall.

“Whether this incident happens in West Covina, or happens in Irwindale or Covina, we’re familiar with working with each others’ team,” Chief Faulkner said following a mock attack in a West Covina shopping mall in September, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported. “We might be in different uniforms, but in the end, we’re all in one uniform when it comes time to deal with a critical incident.”

But regardless of how prepared security forces are to respond, it is more important to prevent attacks from occurring, says New York-based terrorism and corporate security expert Manuel Gomez.

“The training programs are very effective. The security in malls has been improved since 9/11 and the events in Kenya. But it is very difficult to prevent a lone wolf attack. We are very effective at neutralizing organizations as a whole, but preventing lone wolf attacks is our biggest challenge,” says Mr. Gomez, president of MG Security Services in New York.

“They [security forces] are very good at working together. They will respond effectively, but we need to prevent, be more proactive than reactive. If we need to respond people have already become victims,” he says.

Security has been strengthened in malls across the country following the release of the Al Shabab video, particularly in the Bloomington, Minn., Mall of America. The Mall of America is the largest mall in the country and was mentioned by name in the video. 

The mall has responded by taking "extra security precautions – some visible to guests and others that are not," a security official there told CBS News.

But government officials say that despite the beefed up security, members of the public should also remain vigilant.

"There will be enhanced security (at malls)," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told CNN Sunday. "But public vigilance, public awareness, and public caution in situations like this is particularly important, and it's the environment we're in, frankly." 

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