NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — U.S. authorities said there was “no credible” evidence suggesting a mall attack was in the works after a video purported to be from Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked rebel group al-Shabab urged Muslims to attack malls in Western countries.
The threat by the al Qaeda affiliate came in the final minutes of a more than hourlong video released Saturday in which the extremists also warned Kenya of more attacks like the September 2013 assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in which 67 people were killed.
The masked narrator concluded by calling on Muslims to attack shopping malls, specifically naming the Mall of America in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, as well as the West Edmonton Mall in Canada and the Westfield Mall in Stratford, England. The authenticity of the video could not be immediately verified by The Associated Press.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security provided local law enforcement agencies and private sector partners with “relevant information regarding the recent al-Shabab propaganda video,” DHS press secretary Marsha Catron said in a statement.
“However, we are not aware of any specific, credible plot against the Mall of America or any other domestic commercial shopping center,” Catron said.
Following the threat, the NYPD issued a statement saying it is aware of the video and has taken steps to ensure the safety of New Yorkers.
“We are aware of the recent ‘threat’ and we have been in touch with our international and federal liaisons,” the statement from NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Stephen Davis said. “Although there is no direct threats against New York City, as well as no credible intelligence of such, we have taken appropriate precautionary measures, such as alerting our Critical Response Vehicles and our ‘Hercules’ (special counter-terrorism) Teams. This is something we regularly do in response to terror incidents/threats in other areas of the world that may impact New York City.”
A line of police cars were seen driving past the Manhattan Mall on Monday with their lights flashing, WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported.
Speaking on Sunday morning talk shows, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called the video “the new phase” of the global terrorist threat and warned the public to be vigilant.
“These groups are relying more and more on independent actors to become inspired, drawn to the cause, and they’ll attack on their own,” Johnson said, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“I am very concerned about serious potential threats of independent actors here in the United States. We’ve seen this now in Europe; we’ve seen this in Canada.”
Asked about the specific threat against the Mall of America, Johnson said: “Anytime a terrorist organization calls for an attack on a specific place, we’ve got to take that seriously. What we’re telling the public is you’ve got to be vigilant. There will be enhanced security there that will be apparent, but public vigilance, public awareness and public caution in situations like this is particularly important.”
In the slickly produced video posted online, a masked man, his face wrapped in a black-and-white kaffiyeh-type scarf and wearing a camouflage jacket, declared: “Westgate was just the beginning.” The video included footage from major news organizations showing the assault on the mall and said it was in reprisal for alleged abuses by Kenyan troops against Muslims in Somalia.
“What if such an attack were to occur in the Mall of America in Minnesota? Or the West Edmonton Mall in Canada? Or in London’s Oxford Street?” said the man, who spoke with a British accent and appeared to be of Somali origin.
The Mall of America said in a statement that it was “aware of a threatening video which includes a mention and images of the mall,” and said extra security had been put in place.
While al-Shabab has carried out attacks in neighboring Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti, which all have troops fighting the extremists as part of the multinational African Union force, the al Qaeda affiliate has never operated outside East Africa and the Horn of Africa.
“Al-Shabab is very good at propaganda, but not very good at doing damage, thank God, here in our homeland,” Sen. Charles Schumer said Sunday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that the targeting of shopping centers, or any other potential terror attack, is a priority issue for him.
“If you’re not concerned, you don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Cuomo told WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell in Washington Heights.
Cuomo insisted there is constant communication between federal, state and New York City officials.
New York Rep. Peter King said since the Westgate Mall attack, malls all over the U.S. have stepped up their security.
“We have to really increase security at the malls and just as importantly we have to get intelligence,” King said. “Because if they make it to the mall, unfortunately they are going to succeed; we have to stop them before they get there.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand called the threat a sign of the times.
“It is a serious threat. Jeh Johnson has asked that Americans should be vigilant, but this is the reality that we face today,” Gillibrand (D) New York, said.
But some shoppers say that the threat against U.S. malls is worrisome.
“To me, it’s the easiest thing to drop a paper bag down with something in it they way you come and go in the mall,” one Ho-Ho-Kus resident told 1010 WINS’ John Montone. “It really seems like there’s not too much security.”
Others at Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City, Long Island, however, were undeterred Monday.
“It wouldn’t stop me from shopping,” Tara Daniels, of Carle Place, told CBS2’s Diane Macedo. “What I usually do (is) I just usually be mindful of my surroundings.”
“I’m a retired New York City detective,” said Steven Lis, of Great Neck. “It wouldn’t put us off from shopping at all.”
“If it’s my time, it’s my time,” added Georgina Charles, of Bay Shore. “But I do agree that we should definitely beef up security.”
“We can’t stop living,” said Susan Liss, of Great Neck. “We just go from day to day and pray that nothing happens.”
With malls open for business there was a visible police presence on Monday, CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan reported.
“The Nassau County Police Department is well aware of the threat of the video targeting malls in the U.S. We train routinely here in Nassau County for active shooters and the malls and other large institutions. Not only that we train for improvised explosive devices at these locations,” Inspector Kenneth Lack, Nassau County Police, said.
In Rockland County, Clarkstown police said upon learning of the video they immediately contacted management and security at Palisades Center mall, both of which, police said, they have a close working relationship with. Officers are also stationed at the mall every day.
“We have one of the largest malls in the country, so we have to expect that it could possibly happen here, and you have to step up your game a little bit when you get a threat like that,” Clarkstown police Chief Michael Sullivan told WCBS 880’s Jim Smith.
Sullivan said the key to securing a mall with tens of thousands passing through daily is preparation and educating mall workers on exactly what to do.
“It’s very important that we do drills because, no matter how much you talk about something, you really don’t get it until you actually hands-on do it,” he said.
Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in the U.S., has been the target of terror recruiters in the past. Since 2007, more than 22 young Somali men from Minnesota have traveled to Somalia to join al-Shabab, and a handful of Minnesota residents have also traveled to Syria to fight with militant groups within the last year, authorities say. At least one Minnesotan has died while fighting for the Islamic State group.
On Thursday, a 19-year-old Minneapolis man who was stopped at a New York City airport in November as he and three others were allegedly attempting to travel to Syria was indicted on charges associated with supporting the Islamic State group.
Last week U.S. Attorney Andy Luger led a Minnesota delegation, including law enforcement officials and Somali community leaders, to a White House summit on countering extremism and radicalization. In his remarks, Vice President Joe Biden held up Minneapolis, Boston and Los Angeles as examples of communities moving ahead with programs to counter extremism locally.
In Kenya, the government dismissed the al-Shabab video.
“They’re using propaganda to legitimize what cannot be legitimized. When you lead a group to go and attack a shopping mall and kill innocent shoppers that cannot be legitimized, those were not soldiers,” Interior Ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka said.
“Muslims also died in the Westgate attack. It’s in our interest to ensure Somalia is stabilized because the instability affects us. The video is cheap propaganda trying to re-write history and to get more support from those support them.”
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