Homeland security chief worried about al Shabaab mall threat

Homeland security chief worried about al Shabaab mall threat

© Chris Wattie / Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. homeland security chief said on Sunday he takes seriously an apparent threat by Somali-based Islamist militants against prominent shopping sites in the West including the Mall of America in Minnesota and urged people there to be careful.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was reacting to a video attributed to al Shabaab appearing to call for attacks on Western shopping areas, specifically mentioning Mall of America, the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, London's Oxford Street and sites in Paris.

"This latest statement from al Shabaab reflects the new phase we’ve evolved to in the global terrorist threat, in that you have groups such as al Shabaab and ISIL publicly calling for independent actors in their homelands to carry out attacks," Johnson told the CNN program "State of the Union," using an acronym for the militant group Islamic State.

Asked about the threat to Mall of America, which is one of the world's largest shopping areas, Johnson said: "Anytime a terrorist organization calls for an attack on a specific place, we've got to take that seriously." He advised people going to the Mall of America to be particularly careful.

Some U.S., European and Canadian officials expressed skepticism about the credibility of the threat made in the video.

One U.S. intelligence official said security officials indeed are worried about the risk of an attack on U.S. soil by a solitary militant, but al Shabaab as a group has not appeared to gain much traction with most Somalis in the West, including in Minneapolis.

"In balance, I don't think this video adds much on top of the ubiquitous 'lone offender' threat,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Staff Sergeant Brent Meyer of Canada's Royal Canadian Mounted Police said "there is no evidence at this time of any specific or imminent threat to Canadians." In Britain, a spokesman said London police were aware of the video and were assessing it.

Mall of America and West Edmonton Mall issued statements saying they were implementing extra security measures.

Minnesota is home to a sizeable Somali-American population. U.S. law enforcement officials have been concerned about the potential for radicalization among some of the community.

A Minnesota man was indicted last week on charges of conspiring to support Islamic State and lying to federal agents investigating recruitment by militant groups.

Prosecutors said 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 Shabaab since 2007.

"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.

Privately owned Mall of America, located in Bloomington, near Minneapolis, has about 40 million visitors a year, and contributes nearly $2 billion in annual economic activity to the state of Minnesota, according to its website. Major stores in the complex include retailers Aeropostale , H&M and Macy's .

The West Edmonton Mall in Alberta gets about 30.8 million visitors a year, according to its website. Oxford Street is one of London's busiest shopping areas, home to several large department stores.

Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a 2013 attack on the high-end Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya that killed 67 people, raising fears about mall safety around the world.

Canadian have been on alert in the wake of two 2014 attacks by Muslim converts including a gunman who attacked Canada's Parliament in October, killing a soldier at a nearby war memorial.

Inside the Mall of America, Nick Disbrowe, 23, said he was not entirely surprised when told about the videotape threat.

"If anyone is going to target anything, it's the Mall of America," he said.

(Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Jeffrey Hodgson in Toronto and Todd Melby in Bloomington, Minnesota; Editing by Robin Pomeroy, Stephen Powell and Frances Kerry)