Al Shabab mall threats: Officials say main purpose is to garner attention

While they are taking seriously Al Shabab's video threatening attacks on malls in the US, Canada, and Britain, officials say the group does not have capacity to follow through, and that its threats add little on top of the danger posed by 'lone wolves.'

Jerry Holt/AP/Star Tribune
Shoppers entered the Mall of America Sunday, Feb. 19 in Bloomington, Minn. A video purported to be by Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked rebel group Al Shabab urged Muslims to attack shopping malls in the US, Canada, Britain and other Western countries. Authorities increased security but said the group had little capability to directly threaten the targeted malls.

Despite memories of Al Shabab's notorious Westgate Mall attack in Kenya, security officials say that the Islamic extremist group's threat to launch similar attacks on Western malls has little significance beyond trying to draw further attention to its agenda.

On Saturday, the Somali group released a video threatening Westgate-style attacks on targets in Britain, Canada, and the United States. In the 2013 Westgate attack, several gunmen stormed the mall and fired indiscriminately at shoppers, killing more than 60 people and wounding scores more. The masked jihadi in the new video called for more such attacks, asking, "Can you imagine what a dedicated mujahideen in the West could do to the American and Jewish-owned shopping centers across the world?”

The masked man specifically named several targets, including Oxford Street and the Westfield shopping centers in Britain, the Mall of America in Minnesota, and Canada’s West Edmonton Mall.

US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Sunday that "Anytime a terrorist organization calls for an attack on a specific place, we've got to take that seriously." He said that the US needed to show "public vigilance, public awareness, and public caution" in this "new phase" of terror threats, presumably referring to the uptick in small-cell and "lone wolf" attacks in the West, including those in Sydney, Ottawa, and Paris.

The Monitor writes that according to a Council on Foreign Relations report, Al Shabab “has successfully recruited members of the Somali-American diaspora” in order to “orchestrate strikes on US soil.” The Monitor also notes that "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."

But analysts broadly cast doubt on Al Shabab's capacity to follow through.

A memo issued by federal law enforcement officials to police agencies across the US said that the video threat was likely an "attempt to gain further attention for the" 2013 Westgate attack, reports CBS News. US security officials also said that the group was presumably trying "to take credit for inciting violence by otherwise independent lone offenders."

One US official told Reuters that "In balance, I don't think this video adds much on top of the ubiquitous 'lone offender' threat."

CBS analyst Maj. Mike Lyons told a Vancouver radio station that “There’s been no specific threat on any of these malls – there’s been nothing other than this video that’s come out – so you shouldn’t worry about this kind of propaganda right now unless you saw other law enforcement officials getting excited about it.”

CNN's Peter Bergen says bluntly that "the group isn't much of a threat at all to Americans."

The reality is that Al-Shabaab has shown scant abilities to conduct operations outside of Somalia or neighboring countries such as Kenya. Indeed, the only operation anyone associated with the group has attempted in the West is when a Somali man armed with an ax in 2010 forced himself into the home of Kurt Westergaard – a Danish cartoonist who had depicted the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban – and tried unsuccessfully to break into the fortified safe room where Westergaard was hiding.

Though Mr. Bergen notes that a small number of Somali-Americans have joined Al Shabab and gone to fight in Africa, none of those "is known to have subsequently planned or conducted a terrorist attack inside the United States."

At least in the Mall of America, there was no sign of panic, the Minneapolis Star Tribune writes. "[B]y midafternoon, drivers were jostling for spots in the parking ramp and the mall’s four levels were crowded with shoppers. Several store clerks said it seemed to be a typical Sunday."

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