The Mall of America and other shopping centers are taking extra precautions after Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called for vigilance. His warning stems from a video threat by the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab, in which a masked militant claimed the group will attack shopping centers in the United States, Canada, and Europe. It comes at a time when his department faces the threat of a shut-down.
“I’m not telling people to not go to the mall,” Johnson told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “I think that there needs to be an awareness. There needs to be vigilance. And, you know, be careful, obviously. It’s a new phase. We’re in a new phase right now. And that involves public participation in our efforts.”
Johnson’s warning to mall-goers was a guarded one, but he had far harsher tone when it came to another threat: the one on Capitol Hill that could shut down his entire department by the end of the week. “It’s bizarre and absurd that we’re even having this discussion in these challenging times, given the global terrorist threat we’ve just been talking about,” he said.
Funding for DHS is part of a Homeland Security bill that includes amendments to stifle immigration measures proposed by President Barack Obama. Democrats have sworn against passing the bill with these add-ons and threatened a filibuster to block the measure. Republicans have so far dug in their heels on using the funding bill as a way to block immigration reform, leaving the bill at an impasse and Secretary Johnson scrambling to save his department.
And he may feel safe enough beating that drum. Earlier this month, a poll found that 53 percent of Americans would blame Republicans in Congress if the agency charged with keeping them safe doesn’t have its funding renewed.
“We’re talking about the possibility of shutting down Homeland Security because Congress can’t agree. If we go into government shutdown, some 30,000 employees at my department will be furloughed, including a lot of headquarters personnel who I count on daily to stay one step ahead of groups like ISIL,” he said using the administration’s acronym for the Islamist terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIS.
The brutalities of ISIS in Iraq and Syria are well noted, and the group is likely to have inspired so-called “lone wolf” attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, and, most recently, in Copenhagen. But Al Shabaab, which has only ever waged attacks in West Africa, is believed to have less of a reach in the Western countries where it threatened it would attack malls.
While Al Shabaab killed at least 62 people at an upscale mall in Nairobi in 2013, some experts suggest that these latest threats are part of a fight for relevancy in the wake of the mounting horrors committed by ISIS and Boko Haram.
According to Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert and vice president of the New America Foundation, “ There is no sign so far that Al-Shabaab’s recruits have actually plotted to launch an attack in the United States. For now, at least, the group has also not shown that it is capable of carrying out attacks in the West.”
Regarding Al Shabaab’s threat, Secretary Johnson himself admitted to CNN that there is “no credible or specific evidence” to suggest that an attack on an American mall is in the works.
If DHS had a reason to tell mall-goers to steer clear, he would have, but didn’t do so, urging only that they exercise caution — advice so vague that it’s hard to understand what one could do, or why he would bother to issue it unless, of course, it was to remind Americans, and indeed, lawmakers, of the harrowing task DHS has to perform.
If Johnson is publicizing threats he admitted were not credible hopes of renewing funding for his agency, then it wouldn’t be the first time that the Department of Homeland Security has stoked fear to achieve political ends.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge admitted to playing up fears to win support for fellow Republicans ahead of the 2004 presidential election.
Although he claimed at the time that there was “ new and unusually specific information about where Al Qaeda would like to attack,” he has since denied a heightened state of security was mandated.
“There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None,” Ridge wrote in a 2009 memoir. “I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’ Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president’s approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.”
While it’s hard to disprove legitimate threats without the sort of discloser Ridge has made, there are several instances from the presidency of President George W. Bush when terror threats were unveiled and security levels heightened at political opportune times: just before the 2002 midterm elections and just after as the damning scandal at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.
Given this history, Johnson sounding the alarm on non-specific terrorist threats as his agency’s funding is threatened does raise questions.
“I won’t know about when the next bad actor is going to strike,” Johnson said of the prospect of a DHS shut down — a reality which sounds like a threat in itself.