Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Shopping centre terror threat should be “taken seriously”

Lone wolf terrorists could be planning to target shopping centres in the West according to US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. But whilst he referred to the threat as something that should be "taken seriously", other officials have downplayed the warning as "not credible".

There appears also to be a clear security response to the threat which could leave potential targets even more vulnerable.

"New phase" of terrorism

Commenting on threats made by the Somali-based group al-Shabab, which released a video urging its followers to carry out attacks on shopping centres in the US, Canada and the UK, Johnson said the threat represented a "new phase" of terrorism.

Attacks on shopping malls are not unprecedented. The al Qaeda linked group Al-Shabab was responsible for the 2013 attack on Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi that killed 67 people [Wikipedia - Westgate shopping mall attack].

Naming targets

In the 77 minute video, the fighter - wearing a camouflage jacket with a headscarf covering his face - threatens action and refers to the group's 2013 siege on Kenya's Westgate Mall.

Specifically mentioned was the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, as a possible target, prompting the massive shopping centre to conduct two drills Monday. He also calls for attacks on several shopping centres in Europe including the Westfield shopping centres in Stratford, East London and White City in West London.

The Forum des Halles, a large underground shopping centre in Paris, and Les Quatre Temps in the north-western suburb of the city, were also specifically mentioned.

But other large shopping centres could also be at risk - indeed more so given they may be overlooked by security officials.

For example Lakeside shopping on the outskirts of London or Bluewater in Kent may be just as vulnerable. In fact Bluewater itself has been targeted before [Telegraph]. And in 2007 five men linked to al-Qaeda were jailed for life for a bomb plot targeting the shopping mall and other targets [BBC].

Threat "not credible"

But despite the drills and comments made by the US Homeland Security Secretary, some officials have expressed scepticism concerning al-Shabab's threat.

"Our view is it's propaganda," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said of the video. "There's not a credible threat against malls."

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security also dismissed an imminent threat saying on Sunday that so-called "homegrown violent extremists" were "not likely to respond immediately" to the weekend call for attacks [ABC].

Imminent or not, the potential threat has raised concerns about how to protect the public in such relatively soft targets as shopping malls.

Defence and self defence

The debate has focused particularly on guns and whether members of the public might seek to protect themselves by ignoring bans on concealed weapons in such places.

Ronald Noble, the secretary-general of Interpol noted two means of protecting people from mass shootings. "One is to say we want an armed citizenry; you can see the reason for that. Another is to say the enclaves [should be] so secure that in order to get into the soft target, you're going to have to pass through extraordinary security."

It i virtually impossible to stop killers from getting weapons, Noble says, adding that "you can't have armed police forces everywhere."

"It makes citizens question their views on gun control," he noted. "You have to ask yourself, 'Is an armed citizenry more necessary now than it was in the past, with an evolving threat of terrorism?'"

Since at least 1950, all but two public mass shootings in America have taken place where general citizens are banned from carrying guns. In Europe, there have been no exceptions. Every mass public shooting has occurred in a gun-free zone since the general public are mostly prohibited from owning such weapons.

But while there is a growing anti-gun lobby in America, and a blanket ban across much of Europe, John R. Lott Jr, a former chief economist for the United States Sentencing Commission and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, suggests that gun free zones are a magnet for criminals and terrorists.

Lott points to a number of examples including the movie theatre shooting in the Aurora, Colorado, when  James Eagan Holmes burst in killing 12 people and injuring 70 others [Wikipedia - 2012 Aurora shooting].

Of seven theatres showing the "Batman" movie premiere within 20 minutes of the suspect's apartment, only one banned permitted concealed handguns. The suspect didn't go to the closest or the largest, Lott observes, but to the one that banned self-defence [Chicago Tribune - opinion].

America may be easier to convince, and some may simply change their habits, avoiding gun free zones or spending less time in them.

Europe 'vulnerable'

However, in Europe the public have no such luxury. In most European countries gun ownership is almost entirely banned and even those who are allowed to own them are not permitted to carry them in public. In Britain even the carrying of knives is banned.

Thus many European shopping malls are particularly soft targets for lone wolf terrorists who could carry out an attack with little or no fear of being stopped.

Whilst there is often an obvious security presence in British shopping malls, such personnel are armed with little more than a radio. Furthermore they are hardly experienced, or would unlikely be brave enough, to tackle a terrorist brandishing an AK-47.

Security response

As yet there has been no word on whether armed police might be deployed or stationed at such venues in Britain, although the police said they were aware of the video and in a process of assessing the contents.

In France the number of security guards at the two named shopping centres in Paris has been increased as a result of the video threats. And management at the two malls are said to be in permanent contact with police headquarters in Paris and the department of Haute-Seine as well as the interior ministry.

The Mall of America said it was also taking "extra security precautions" in light of the threat, though not all would be immediately visible.

More reports: BBC / Guardian / Telegraph / Daily Mail / The / 

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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