The U.S. homeland security chief said on Sunday he takes seriously a threat made by Somali-based Islamist militants against shopping malls, including the Mall of America in Minnesota, and urged people going there to be careful.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was reacting to a video released by al-Shabaab appearing to call for attacks on Western shopping areas, specifically mentioning Mall of America, the West Edmonton Mall in Canada and London's Oxford Street.
"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 CNN, using an acronym for the militant group Islamic State.
"We're beyond the phase now where these groups would send foreign operatives into countries after being trained some place," Johnson said.
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There is precedent for an attack on malls by the group. The al-Qaida-linked terror group talks in the video about its September 2013 attack on a mall in Kenya. The brazen siege, which went on for days, left more than 60 people dead at an upscale mall in Nairobi.
Asked specifically about the threat to Mall of America, one of the world's largest shopping complexes, Johnson said: "Anytime a terrorist organization calls for an attack on a specific place, we've got to take that seriously."
"I would say that if anyone is planning to go to the Mall of America today, they've got to be particularly careful."
Hours later, Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Marsha Catron said the department and the FBI had shared information about the video with local law enforcement and "private sector partners."
"As a general matter, however, we are not aware of any specific, credible plot against the Mall of America or any other domestic commercial shopping center," she said in a statement.
One U.S. intelligence official said security officials are indeed 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 Sgt. 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.
The Mall of America has more than 500 stores and attracts 40 million visitors a year, about two-fifths of them tourists, according to its website. It’s owned by Triple Five Group, an Edmonton, Alberta-based development company.
Johnson’s interview occurred as funding for the Department of Homeland Security is set to lapse Feb. 27. Such a lapse would trigger a shutdown of non-essential agency operations unless Congress enacts new funds. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner want to use a spending bill to force President Barack Obama to reverse his orders shielding undocumented immigrants from being deported.
On Monday, McConnell will try for a fourth time to advance a House-passed Homeland Security spending bill, H.R. 240, that would require Obama to abandon the immigration action he announced in November.
Democrats have blocked the measure three times. They say Congress should fund Homeland Security, which is responsible for immigration and border enforcement, without setting new limits on immigration policy. Democrats have said they are holding firm in defense of the president’s policies.
The National Security Council told CNN it's working with various agencies, including the FBI and local law enforcement, to ensure maximum security.
"Protecting public safety and national security is our highest priority," Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told CNN.
The Somalia-based militants have heavily recruited in Minneapolis, which is home to the largest Somali population in the United States. Many young men have slipped away to join the group in Somalia.
Although al-Shabaab has also targeted youth in Canada, Finland, and the UK for recruitment, its past attacks have been limited to East Africa. In addition to Kenya and Somalia, it has also struck in Uganda, where it killed more than 70 people gathered to watch a World Cup soccer match in Kampala five years ago. Kenya and Uganda have sent their forces to neighboring Somalia to battle the extremists, CNN reported.
As the attacks get more daring, the international community has rallied to fight the militants.
Last year, the United States launched an airstrike in Somalia that killed the al-Shabaab leader. The terror group later replaced him and vowed to avenge his death.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said in an interview on CBS’s "Face the Nation" Sunday that he didn’t support efforts to shut the government down and that the federal court system is the "best way" to resolve the impasse.
"But have no doubt I am angry, as are my constituents in a border state, that the president of the United States would unconstitutionally issue the executive orders he did," McCain said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, urged Republicans to fund the department and fight Obama’s actions in court.
"The worst possible option is to defund the Department of Homeland Security," Graham said. "And I will not be part of that."
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