Al Shabab has a track record in Africa—no reason they won't try the same thing in US
The headlines in the days since a Somali terrorist group threatened to attack shopping malls in the west pretty much agreed: "No credible threat to shoppers."
Stephen C. Coughlin is not so quick to write off the threat.
Coughlin has been studying terrorism for years. An attorney, decorated intelligence officer and noted specialist on Islamic law, ideology and associated issues as they relate to terrorism and subversion, he worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff beginning in 2001. As a Major in the United States Army (res.), Coughlin was later assigned to USCENTCOM where he served in both an intelligence and strategic communications/information operations role. He has since retired from the Reserves.
He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy, which is publishing his book Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad next month.
He spoke with Aleteia about ongoing threats to the homeland in the age of ISIS.
What do you think of the threat to malls in the US and other western countries? Is it serious?
It was al Shabab that bombed that mall the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. I think we are aware that we have people in places like Minnesota, where they have large Somali populations, that there’s a contingent of al Shabab there. What happens when their budget doesn’t allow them to go to Africa to shoot people in a mall and they still want to kill somebody? Well, they have malls right here. I’m being a little glib, but I think al Shabab functions in the jihadi space as groups like al Qaeda do in the Arab world. You can make the argument that they’re associated at some level.
I think we can identify a series of events that are starting to materialize that make terrorism in this country more probable than not this year.
This is the 10th year of the 10-year [Programme of Action to make defaming Islam a punishable crime]. I don’t think it’s an accident that within the first week of the 10th year we saw Charlie Hebdo, which had to do with the cartoons they first protested in 2006. Then you saw the killings in Copenhagen, and they also had to do with defamation of the Prophet of Islam. I think what we’re going to see is that this narrative ratchets up this year and there’s going to be some pressure for that to happen. This is the year, I think, we’re going to see groups like ISIS go on the offensive; this is the year when, if we ratchet up our attacks on ISIS over there, we’re going to find out that they’re going to open up a front here.
What’s the chance that a group like al Shabab can pull something off—at a mall or elsewhere?
If they decide to act, I think it’s 100%. There are a lot of malls. One of the things I would point out is that at the end of the day al Nusra in Syria and ISIS in Syria and Iraq are al Qaeda. They come from them, they’re the more militant wing of them right now, but as long as they’re making gains, al Qaeda’s not going to do anything to stop them, and if they are successful they’ll all reconcile with one another.
Al Qaeda puts out Inspire magazine, and they’re talking about what targets they’d like to attack, with what types of weapons. So we’re on clear notice. All you have to do is go to Inspire magazine and see photos of what they’d like to attack. If you take a look at the first two months of this year, they went and executed people for not standing back in defaming Islam.
Are we looking at threats both from “lone wolves” and organized terrorist groups working within our country?
There’s no such thing as lone wolf terrorism. That’s the term we use to mask the real term, "individual jihahd."
An expert interviewed on Fox News felt that the video is merely a fundraising tool on the part of al Shabab.
Al Shabab doesn’t need to make videos just to advertise. … You have a terrorist group that openly advocates violence. They act according to what they say. And we should understand that when they say they’re targeting malls, they’ve hit malls in Africa, and people who discount that are underestimating the threat.
What kinds of things should people be on the lookout for?
How easy is it for someone to walk into a mall with a gun, or say to everybody, “Let’s meet at the east gate of the mall and everybody bring a gun and let’s just start shooting people up? I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but if the decision is made to execute then they’ll execute, and I just hope the FBI has people in those systems to catch it. If a terrorist organization says they’re going to strike we should assume that they mean it.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.