All of the major television news networks today featured reports that the terrorist group Al-Shabaab released a video threatening attacks on shopping malls in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. Reportedly the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota – one of the country’s largest shopping malls – and West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, were among those explicately threatened. Cable news channels such as CNN, CNBC and FOX covered the threats in detail bringing various talking head experts in to discuss the implications. Everyone in the country paying any attention to the daily news today became aware that Al Shabaab was calling for attacks on these malls.
Of all well known terrorist groups in the world, Al-Shabaab is probably the least capable of carrying out such attacks. Headquartered in Somalia has staged countless terrorist attacks in East Africa including an attack on the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi Kenya which resulted in 67 deaths and over 175 people wounded. The group also at one time occupied large portions of Somalia.
However, Al-Shabaab has never been active except in East Africa and even there it has been significantly weakened. Since the mall attack the military of Kenya has be actively fighting the terrorist organization. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been fighting along side the military forces of the government of Somalia against Al-Shabab. Currently consisting of elements of the militaries of eight African nations, AMISOM is operated by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council and is approved by the United Nations. With the help of approximately twenty three thousand AMISOM troops, the Somali military has managed to recapture most of its territory formally held Al-Shabaab and has killed many of its leaders. US aircraft and drones have also eliminate several in Al-Shabaab’s top leadership positions.
The bottom line is that Al-Shabaab is in trouble in its own territory and is certainly in no position to threaten terrorist attacks on other continents. Numerous security experts including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson agreed today that the terrorist group has no known operational capability in the United States and Canada. Therefore, there is virtually no possibility that an Al-Shabaab sleeper cel will come out of hibernation and attack the Mall of Americas with automatic weapons and suicide vests.
The only threat posed by the Al-Shabaab video to malls in the Western Hemisphere is the possibility that some unstable person with access to weapons will answer their call to jihad and enter his local shopping mall with an AR-15 or Bushmaster assault rifle bought at a local gun store and try to kill as many people as he can. The question is, if such a thing were to happen, how would be would be Jihadist learn of Al-Shabaab’s message in the first place.
Apparently the Al-Shabaab’s video was placed on some obscure website. You can bet that Homeland Security agents monitor that site round the clock trying to determine those who access it on a regular basis. Had the media not reported the existence of video very few people would even know that it exists and there is a good chance that those who view it would be known to law enforcement. So the question that begs to be asked is whether our media is inadvertently aiding and abetting terrorist groups in situation like this one by publishing their messages.
I’ll wager that when the leadership of Al-Shabaab learned of the media coverage of their video they were jubilant and claimed a major propaganda victory. They probably believe that by doing nothing but releasing a six minute video on the internet they were able to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies which otherwise they could never reach. We also have to at least examine the possibility that someone who would have otherwise never even heard al-Shabaab’s call to jihad might not only hear that message, but also act on it. Certainly the shopping malls involved could have been alerted to strengthen their security by governmental agencies without the publication of the video so what it comes down to is how important is the public’s right to know.
On one level, one could argue that those who might frequent the malls referenced in the video have a right to know so that they can avoid those visits altogether or at least be more careful when they visit. On another level it could also be argued that the public has a right to know what is going on in the world regardless of whether they can act on the information or not. The question is, how are those rights to be balanced with the fact the very publication of the threats on that video may have made the public in general, and mall goers in particular less safe than they would have been otherwise.
Those are the kind of questions which will always come up in an open democracy where the public’s safety must be balanced against their right to know. Hopefully those in charge are making good decisions, but I am not at all sure that is the case.