What began after 9/11 with the U.S.' sprawling operations against al Qaeda has since expanded to a combat against various different militant groups, including the Somalia-based al Shabaab. And the group made jarring headlines around the world Monday — al Shabaab made terror threats against malls in America, Canada and the UK in a recent video, though U.S. officials clearly don't want to instill panic.
While not as prominently known in the U.S. as either al Qaeda or ISIS is, al Shabaab has a long history in Somalia and neighboring Kenya, and it's a bloody one. Just this week, they orchestrated the bombing and armed storming of a luxury hotel in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, leaving at least 25 people dead in the process, and back in 2013 they launched an infamous siege of the Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
But in spite of this track record, the U.S. seems to want to tamp down concerns, not exacerbate them — while Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told CNN that Mall of America visitors should be "particularly careful" at the moment, both his department and the FBI released a statement stating that they know of no "credible or specific evidence" of a plot against the enormous shopping hub.
Said Johnson to CNN:
If anyone is planning to go to the Mall of America today, they’ve got to be particularly careful ... There will be enhanced security there, but public vigilance, public awareness and public caution in situations like this is particularly important, and it’s the environment we’re in, frankly.
To be clear, the group included threats and calls for Muslims to attack a number of malls, as detailed by the BBC — the Mall of America in Minnesota, the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, and London's Oxford Street (in addition to two Westfield malls in the London area). That's likely not the full list, however — CNN detailed that they've only announced the names of the malls that have publicly responded to the threats, which implies that more were likely threatened.
The likely question on the mind of would-be American, Canadian and British shoppers, of course, is whether these threats should be viewed credibly or not. And while awareness is always being stressed — "if you see something, say something," like the signs always say — American security agencies seem to believe you shouldn't be inordinately fearful. Al Shabaab doesn't have nearly as high a membership as some of its terroristic brethren, estimated between 7,000 and 9,000 strong, according to the BBC. By contrast, ISIS boasts tens of thousands of fighters, according to CIA estimates.
Obviously, this recent threat has summoned the Westgate mall siege to mind, a harrowing incident which left 67 people dead, and dozens upon dozens more injured. But it's worth keeping a level-headed perspective on this, especially given the vastly different proximities of the two groups — al Shabaab is an active, deleterious force within Kenya, while the three western nations they've threatened are all vastly more secure and remote.
In simplest terms, this could amount to nothing, or it could be a prelude to more aggressive, volatile branching-out by the Islamic militant group. But you probably shouldn't start worrying and upturning all your plans as a result — it may sound cheesy to say, but that's likely what these groups are hoping for, after all.
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