The Obama administration on Sunday warned shoppers to be “particularly careful” when visiting the Mall of America, which is now in the crosshairs of an Islamic militant group bent on hitting soft targets in the U.S., Canada and Britain.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the threats from the al-Shabab terrorist group — which released a video over the weekend calling for strikes on the iconic mall in Bloomington, Minnesota — represent a new age of extremist tactics. The days of training fighters in the Middle East and dispatching them to the West for Sept. 11-style attacks are over, he said.
Instead, inspiring “lone wolf” terrorists to strike unguarded targets without warning will become the centerpiece of extremists’ strategy, the Homeland Security secretary said.
“I would say that if anyone is planning to go to the Mall of America today, they’ve got to be particularly careful,” Mr. Johnson told CNN. “We’re beyond the phase where these groups would send foreign operatives into countries after being trained someplace.
“We’re in a new phase in that these groups are relying more and more on independent actors to become inspired, drawn to the cause, carry out these small-scale attacks on their own through their effective use of the Internet. That’s why it is critical we work in those communities where these groups might be able to recruit.”
The evolving threat has led lawmakers and administration officials to call for better cooperation with Muslim communities in the U.S. to counter terrorists’ recruitment efforts before they result in violence. That strategy, officials say, will be carried out in concert with military strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, al-Shabab in Somalia and other militant groups across the globe.
In response to this weekend’s specific threat, the Mall of America said it was beefing up security at the sprawling complex, one of the largest shopping centers in the world, with more than 520 stores and 50 restaurants.
“Mall of America is aware of the threatening video that was released, which included mention and images of the mall. We take any potential threat seriously and respond appropriately,” the mall’s management said in a statement. “We have implemented extra security precautions. Some may be noticeable to guests and others won’t.”
Mr. Johnson said the Department of Homeland Security takes the threat “very seriously” and will work closely with state and local law enforcement in Minnesota moving forward.
Al-Shabab, a Somalia-based offshoot of al Qaeda, also threatened Canada’s West Edmonton mall and London’s Oxford Street shopping district.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul area of Minnesota has been a hotbed of terrorist recruiting efforts in recent years, heightening fears that radicalized Americans could heed al-Shabab’s call and target the Mall of America or other local sites.
Over the past eight years, more than two dozen Minnesota men have traveled to Somalia and taken up arms to fight for al-Shabab, according to government estimates. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the U.S.
Al-Shabab, along with other militant organizations such as the Islamic State, increasingly have turned to Twitter and other social media networks in their recruiting efforts.
To counter those tactics, lawmakers say it’s critical that the federal government work with community organizations to prevent Americans from either leaving the U.S. to join terrorist groups abroad or carrying out lone-wolf attacks at home.
“They tend to use the Internet. We have not seen as much mosque recruitment as you might have seen in other places. They use the Internet to go after young men. The parents often don’t even know it’s happening,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, told MSNBC on Sunday. “That’s why the answer has got to be from the community.
“We are proud of our Somali community in Minnesota. We have half the Somalis in the country in Minnesota. They have helped us with these cases … the Somalis in our community, they are serving in elected office, they are running businesses. They are part of a fabric of life in the community and also part of the solution.”
The Minnesota threat comes on the heels of a White House summit last week focused on countering violent extremism, though administration officials continue to resist using terms such as “radical Islam” in describing the threats posed by terrorist groups.
At the summit, President Obama said Americans must work harder to fully integrate Muslims into their communities and reduce the possibility that young men or women could become radicalized.
“Many people in our countries don’t always know personally of somebody who is Muslim. So the image they get of Muslims or Islam is in the news. And given the existing news cycle, that can give a very distorted impression,” he said during an address at the summit. “A lot of the bad, like terrorists who claim to speak for Islam, that’s absorbed by the general population. Not enough of the good — the more than 1 billion people around the world who do represent Islam, and are doctors and lawyers and teachers, and neighbors and friends.”