The Islamic Crescent Journey to the West – Directly to the Soft Underbelly

The Somali terrorist organiztion, al-Shabaab, is threatening in a new video to carry out attacks in shopping centers in Europe. Meir Gershuni believe there is a need to find an appropriate solution to the threat – which includes accurate intelligence, trained and skilled security personnel and harming the organization's bases


In recent days, there is a video going around online – ISIS style – in which the terrorist Somali organization al-Shabaab threatens to carry out attacks in shopping centers in Europe – mainly in France and the United Kingdom, and in North America - namely Canada and the United States. The video voiced a special mention of the shopping center Mall of America (Minnesota), which is one of the largest in the US, and its focus on the intention to harm shopping centers owned by Jewish businessmen. In a faint but requested response, the French and American internal security authorities announced the increased security deployment in shopping centers.

The terrorist organization al-Shabaab is the one responsible of the Sep-2013 extravagant attack at the shopping center in Nairobi, in which 67 people were killed and 175 were injured. The security failures and the hesitant reaction of the Kenyan intervention forces in the event served the terrorists and allowed them to spread the event over 36 hours that captivated the entire global media and left a traumatic scar on Kenya, a state that has its share of attacks anyway. In the context of the prolonged attack, it is impossible not to mention the series of bombings in Bombay India in November 2008 – including at the Chabad House center. 60 hours have passed since the infiltration of terrorists and the beginning of the carnage at the Taj Mahal to the completion of the event. Whether the prolonging of the events was intentional, we do not know for sure. However, it is clear that it serves the interests of the terrorists and that is likely it will become a pattern.

Not surprisingly, al-Shabaab's spokesperson stressed that during the attack in Nairobi, "a handful of terrorists brought an entire country to its knees...", hinting the attacks the organization plans to carry out in the West. This is a striking example of the phenomenon known as "second attack syndrome" – expressed by the urging of terrorist organizations to emulate and replicate the success.

In Minnesota, as in Edmonton, Canada – whose shopping centers were mentioned as a target for attacks – there are large Somali immigrant communities. This fact also plays into the hands of opponents since it is possible to create a basis of support for attacks, whether by assisting terrorists coming from outside or by the recruitment of terrorists from the community while preparing the hearts through manipulation and seduction.

On the face of it, al-Shabaab has already achieved significant success by publishing the video tape – it created a natural wave in the Western media and security forces have been deployed in large shopping centers, an act which is an expression of the need to calm the public through a message of control, as well as demonstrating action taken by the authorities – in order to not to be accused of not taking steps to stay ahead of the organization, and especially for taking preventive measures. By the way, the mere publication of the security alertness may sometimes serve the prevention of the attack regarding the specific target, but of course could lead to the transferal of the attack to a destination which is more convenient for terrorist organization.

Without knowing the specific intelligence, if any exists, with regards to the intentions of al-Shabaab, it is clear that shopping centers in general and in particular those mentioned in the video, are a "soft underbelly" that requires a comprehensive security system capable of preventing terrorist attacks. Such shopping and entertainment centers contain tens of thousands of people (Mall of America has 40 million visitors a year!), and they also have a significant weight in the public, social and economic aspects.

The increased security, in light of the intentions to execute such an attack, inevitably produces a certain damage to the routine of life. As long as it is performed devotionally, it is justified, as life is more important than the quality of life. However everything should be done in order to reduce the damage to the quality of life to a minimum. The name of the game is quality rather than quantity. In other words – professionalism.

Israel also knew painful attacks in shopping centers, on the basis of which operating procedures, a doctrine, and a security system were created, whose efficiency largely depends on the shopping center management (awareness and resource allocation), the proficiency of the security officer and the given capabilities of the security personnel. In my humble opinion, a great deed is still required in order to reach the best security response. It is worth noting that over the years, with an emphasis on the years 2000 to 2008, many attacks have been prevented, including against shopping centers, thanks to accurate intelligence information from the Shin Bet (ISA). It is worth mentioning two terrorist attacks, which were planned to be carried out in shopping centers and prevented as a result of the presence of security. The first was at Dizengoff Center and the second at Ha'Sharon mall in Netanya. In both cases, the suicide bomber who intended to explode in the shopping center, were deterred by due to the security forces at the entrance and chose to detonate outside the mall among passersby in the street.

Shopping center security must rely on trained and skilled security personnel, which through the appropriate security method will know how to create a dynamic security, which would deter the terrorist and allow to expose him as he approaches (preferably during the pre- attack reconnaissance preparations) the secured target environment. Without going into details, I will note that in this case, special emphasis should be given to operational work, identifying suspects and covert operations to reinforce the public security forces.

Another significant element requires the cooperation of the community in the security efforts (workers at the shopping center, business owners, and visitors). Balanced and professional-oriented advertising will allow the creation of awareness among the business community as well as among the visitors. This will create a situation where they are alert,  report on possible suspicion, and assist the security forces as a power multiplier that will make them partners in creating their safety and the security of the facility. The main objective is to increase awareness for alertness.

This specific threat of course requires appropriate intelligence activities, including and especially regarding the Islamic community in general and in particular the Somalian community at the relevant places, in order to reduce the possibility of incitement and urging of people among the community to assist or take part in carrying out attacks. It should be recalled that most of the Somalian Muslim community does not support terrorist activities; on the contrary, it is disgusted by it and is anxious due to the damage to its image and the stigma placed upon its people, which will eventually damage the social fabric of the local community. In view of such identity of interests, there is a need to operate with the community leaders and clerics who will strongly condemn such calls to carry out attacks and supply "counter" information.

On the strategic level, which relies mainly on counterterrorism intelligence, acting alongside the level of security, a concerted action of the intelligence services and counter terrorist units is required against the control centers of al-Shabaab in Somalia. In recent years the organization sends his tentacles to many countries in Central and South Africa, produces instability and a significant threat. It should be noted that in addition to the attack in the shopping center in Nairobi (and dozens of other terror attacks in the country since 2005), the organization carried out the attack in Kampala during the World Cup in 2010, killing 70 people, and that branches of the organization are planted in various countries including South Africa, as an infrastructure of terrorist activities. The threats expressed by the organization to carry out attacks in the West require a response on its bases in Somalia, which will help stabilize the situation also in the circle of the close countries which are permanently threatened by organization.

The writer is a former head of division in the ISA and currently Senior Vice President, Homeland Security, at Maydex AG, specializing in critical infrastructures security.

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