The Department of Homeland Security is urging shopping malls in the United States to increase security in the aftermath of the carnage wrought by al Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate over the weekend in Nairobi.
Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, told The Daily Beast on Monday that the department contacted shopping malls Sunday to check on the precautions they were taking against mass shooters.
U.S. intelligence officials say there is no specific threat information suggesting that al Qaeda is planning a similar kind of mass shooting in American shopping malls. Nonetheless, security experts worry about copycats.
“There could be copycats,” said Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. McCaul said he was concerned about psychologically unstable people or radicalized Americans looking at the images from the Westgate mall in Nairobi and seeking to carry out a similar attack in the United States.
“After 9/11 we had the two shooters who ran up and down the East Coast,” he said. McCaul stressed that the two men, known as the D.C. snipers, were not connected to al Qaeda. But he said, “You could have someone who is mentally unstable, and this is their unhealthy way to draw attention to themselves.”
A Department of Homeland Security official on Monday confirmed that the department was recently in communication with “commercial facilities, which include shopping centers and malls in the United States.” The official added, “At this time, there is no indication of a threat to the homeland related to the incident in Nairobi.”
The Mall of America, the biggest shopping mall in the United States, has already increased security measures in response to the Nairobi mall siege over the weekend.
“Mall of America continues to monitor the tragic events unfolding in Kenya with the help of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies,” said a spokesman for the mall. “Mall of America has implemented extra security precautions. Some may be noticeable to guests, and others won’t be. We will continue to follow the situation, along with law enforcement, and will remain vigilant as we always do in similar situations.”
The giant shopping mall is in Bloomington, Minnesota, less than 20 minutes from Minneapolis, which boasts a vibrant Somali-American community, from which al Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate, Al-Shabab, has been recruiting heavily.
Shootings in American shopping malls are not uncommon. Two women were killed at a San Francisco mall in July, and last Christmas two were fatally shot in a mall in Portland, Oregon, before the shooter turned the gun on himself.
In 2007 a Somali man with ties to al Qaeda was arrested for plotting to bomb a mall in Columbus, Ohio. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support for terrorists and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Many of the malls contacted by DHS on Sunday said they were implementing additional security precautions as a result of the events in Nairobi.
“The fear is that you can have an individual who is mentally deranged or someone who has been radicalized who would carry out a copycat attack.”
“Most [shopping] centers have their own security in place, and they could increase that, meaning they would bring in extra security officers, put more security officers in uniform to be a more obvious presence,” said Kavanagh. “They would reach out to local law enforcement officers and ask them to increase patrols in the centers.”
Echoing McCaul, Kavanaugh said the biggest fear among management at U.S. shopping malls was that ambitious copycats would draw inspiration from Nairobi.
“The U.S. security industry follows world events,” he said, “because the fear is [that] like what you saw at the Navy Yard or in Sandy Hook, that you can have an individual who is mentally deranged or someone who has been radicalized who would carry out a copycat attack.”
—With reporting from Eli Lake