In the wake of new terrorist threats on the Mall of America and other shopping venues in Canada and the U.K., mall owners, trade groups and government officials in the U.S. quickly moved to calm consumers’ nerves.
But while encouraging people to go about their lives as usual, they didn’t hide their own unease about a video posted online Saturday from a Somali terrorist group, al-Shabaab, said to be affiliated with Islamic extremists, threatening the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.; West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, and Oxford Street in London, as well as two Westfield shopping centers in London, in Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush.
The terrorist video, which is more than an hour long, included images of the Mall of America, one of the biggest and highest-profile shopping centers in the U.S. Compared to past threats, the latest generated heightened concern, partly due to recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that killed more than 60 people, for which the Somali group claimed responsibility. It also seemed to thumb its nose at last week’s White House counter-terrorism summit examining ways to stop extremists from recruiting in the States, including stopping al-Shabaab from recruiting Somalis in Minnesota, which has one of the largest populations of Somalis in the U.S. California, Georgia and Washington, D.C., also have large Somali populations.
The Mall of America said it was taking the new terrorist threats “seriously” and that it beefed up security measures, without specifying those actions. “We are aware of the threat released and have implemented extra security precautions. Some may be noticeable and some may not,” a representative from Mall of America’s public relations department told WWD on Sunday.
In Minneapolis, local news station TV-WCCO reported that the al-Shabaab video shows an English-speaking man in a face mask and camouflage jacket encouraging the mall attacks.
Real estate sources indicated that, based on past threats to U.S. malls that have surfaced periodically since 9/11, they don’t expect much decline in traffic in the days ahead.
Still, they acknowledged that malls, as wide open public spaces with many points of entry and egress, are difficult to secure. “They’re soft targets,” said one developer, who added that unlike airports, malls don’t search people when they enter.
“Unfortunately, this is a sign of the world we live in, but people have become kind of inured” of the threats and continue to shop. “If it became a more specific threat, there could be a different reaction,” said the developer, who requested anonymity.
“We are taking this seriously, but we are a mall. There is a limit to how much you can do because of the open nature of the facility. All of the malls will go onto a higher level of alert. They’re much more focused. If somebody leaves a package for a minute, there will be zero tolerance,” said the developer. Asked how long malls will be on high alert, the source said, “It really depends on what law enforcement tells us about the nature of the threat.”
Some mall owners are exploring new surveillance methods and technologies and different ways of working with law enforcement agencies. For the present, the immediate response to a terrorist threat largely involves contacting authorities, adding security and police to the premises, reacting quickly to unattended packages, monitoring truck docks and telling shoppers to be on the lookout for suspicious people or activities.
Even those properties not specifically mentioned in the new threats were acting like they could have been.
“The shopping-center industry takes seriously its responsibility to provide a safe and comfortable environment in which to shop. Since 9/11, the shopping-center industry has worked diligently with federal, state and local law enforcement officials on training and preparedness,” said Malachy Kavanagh, senior vice president of communications for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
“While some security measures deployed at shopping centers such as the use of bollards, uniformed patrols by law enforcement officers and surveillance camera systems will be evident to consumers, many more protective measures will not,” Kavanagh said. “When it comes to protecting and securing a shopping center, many factors are taken into consideration, and security plans and procedures are customized to each center’s unique characteristics. In short, there is no one-size-fits-all approach taken when it comes to developing and deploying a security program. Individual centers continually update and refine their security plans in concert with their law enforcement partners as part of their ongoing effort to be vigilant.”
“We’re on heightened alert,” said William Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers, which either owns, manages or leases 21 centers in the U.S. and Asia. “We obviously take all of these threats seriously and will be very careful monitoring the properties.”
“Something like this, I don’t think it will deter a lot of people from shopping,” said another mall executive. “We are taking a close watch. Since 9/11, heightened security measures have been the norm.”
“In light of the security alert for U.S. malls, retailers are moving quickly to implement their top-level emergency plans,” said Bill Thorne, senior vice president at the National Retail Federation. “That includes alerting personnel and shoppers to maintain a heightened level of vigilance at all times. Employee and customer safety is a critical responsibility that retailers take very seriously, spending an enormous amount of time and resources training the staff to make the best decisions in the event of an emergency or threat of violence. Retailers work as partners with federal and local law enforcement, and that starts with a high level of communication in order to keep abreast of any and all threat updates. Consumers should rest assured that retailers have been and remain prepared for any emergency that may arise.”
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson reacted to the new threat on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, calling it a “new phase in terms of the global terrorist threat that we’ve evolved to where it’s no longer core al-Qaeda planning and operating in secret and directing operatives to come from foreign lands to a place of attack.”
In his interview with journalist Bob Schieffer, Johnson said, “We now have a situation where groups like ISIL, al-Shabaab, AQAP are publicly calling for individual actors to carry out attacks in your homeland. And in my judgment, that represents a totally new environment. And we have to deal with it in a new and different way that involves a whole government approach and involves working with state and local law enforcement, working with the community, working with community leaders to hopefully persuade people who might be inclined in this direction to turn away from violence.”
Asked about stepping up security, Johnson replied, “I am confident that there will be enhanced security at the mall in Minneapolis. We’ve ramped up the federal protective service at federal buildings around the country. But this most recent release is emblematic of a new phase that we’re in. And so doing things here in the homeland has become critical to dealing with this new global terrorist threat that we face.”
Johnson addressed “the foreign fighter phenomenon,” indicating, “We have to carefully track their travel. We have systems in place to track individuals of suspicion who are traveling internationally. There is an unknown factor. I have a reasonable degree of confidence that we know who they are, but I don’t have a complete degree of confidence. So there’s more work to do there.”
Late Sunday afternoon, the Bloomington Police Department issued a statement in conjunction with the FBI, Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, Metro Transit Police and Mall of America, saying that as of that time, there was no credible threat associated with Mall of America.
“We will continue to work together at all levels to evaluate this and other information as it becomes available,” the police department said. “We take all security concerns seriously and have responded appropriately. Enhanced security measures to include additional personnel have been implemented and all information is being monitored.” The mall has round-the-clock security and the Bloomington police have a permanent presence, while other law enforcement agencies maintain “high visibility in and around the property.”