Al-Shabab video sends message to rivals

WASHINGTON — Al-Shabab posted a 76-minute video online urging Somalis living in the West to attack shopping malls. But the message may have been intended more for the Islamic State (ISIL).

“There is so much attention given to ISIL, al-Shabab feels as if it needs to speak up and remind Somalis that it’s still out there and relevant,” said a security source from a foreign government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Law enforcement authorities from the U.S., Britain, France and Canada have determined that Somalis from their nations are going abroad to fight with ISIL, while passing over al-Shabab, said the source.

Al-Shabab is in transition.

“There’s definitely been some instability in the core leadership. There’s been a change of ideas and clan allegiances,” said Rahma Dualeh, senior researcher at Sahan Research in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Al-Shabab recognizes that there is a competition underway for recruits.

“And without those recruits,” said the foreign security source, “the organization, which has aspirations of launching international attacks, will not be able to export its main product, which is fear.”

“They’re fighting for human resources and for profile,” said Richard Barrett, vice president at the Soufan Group. “Al-Shabab is on the back foot at the moment having lost its main leader, Godane, and the new leader is having trouble establishing his authority,” said Barrett.

Barrett gives an example of how deep the turmoil is within the organization.

“Very senior figures have been killed by external forces and internally, they’ve been shooting a lot of their own people whom they suspect of spying.”

American intelligence sources tell WTOP that conflicts are going on in the world of terrorism that could change the threat environment in the coming months and years. ISIL is at the center of them all. Al-Qaida is engaged in a bitter feud with ISIL, the Taliban is struggling to keep a lid on members extolling ISIL’s accomplishments and al-Shabab could lose its relevance if ISIL absorbs its message and base.

Another group, Boko Haram, has already aggressively claimed its own caliphate in West Africa by putting out threat videos and following up with brutal attacks in Nigeria and Chad.

A Boko Haram group has attacked mainly rural outposts and has not attempted any international attacks. Al-Shabab, based in East Africa, wants lone-wolf attackers to go to shopping centers with hundreds of stores in them, thousands of miles away.

In the video, the narrator, who speaks English, says, “What if such an attack (speaking of the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya) was to occur in the Mall of America in Minnesota?” In the video, a graphic appears along with the GPS coordinates of the mall.

In addition to the Mall of America, the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, London’s Oxford Street, and what the narrator calls “the Jewish-owned Westfield shopping centers” are named as targets.

“They picked the West Edmonton Mall because there’s a large Somali community working in the oil fields near Fort McMurray,” the foreign security source says. “There are a lot drugs, gangs and criminal activity in some of those nearby areas — and there is violence that comes along with it and the West Edmonton Mall is closest to them.”

There are concerns that elements sympathetic to al-Shabab might try to take advantage of those circumstances.

The connection between criminal gangs and terrorists was recently acknowledged as a growing threat by international security experts gathered in Morocco at the Marakesh Security Forum. The nexus between the traffickers, criminal organizations and future terror attacks was deemed a significant risk.

The FBI and DHS say they’ve provided local law enforcement and other first responders as well as private sector partners in the U.S. with relevant information regarding the recent al-Shabab propaganda video. In a statement sent to media organizations, they said, “As a general matter, however, we are not aware of any specific, credible plot against the Mall of America or any other domestic commercial shopping center.”

Dualeh said that even though “al-Shabab has carried out every single one of its threats in Africa, I don’t think [the Minnesota threat is] credible.

“The Somali population in Minnesota has become quite vigilant, given the higher number of people leaving there to join the jihad.”

That said, Dualeh recognizes there are other possibilities, including those “who might have gone under the radar already, a sleeper cell or someone affiliated with some other group.”

The foreign security source concluded part of the true intent of the video was to show ISIL and other terror groups that al-Shabab is still a player.

Still, security officials in Canada, the U.K. and France, like the U.S., are urging their communities to be vigilant.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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