Al-Qaida is putting America’s shopping malls and other soft targets in its bull’s-eye, according to counter-terror experts.
Bruce Hoffman, who authored a study at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, says in a report published in the Washington Post that al-Qaida continues to be a threat because of its networking ability.
“For a terrorist movement supposedly on its last legs, al-Qaida late last month launched two separate attacks less than a week apart – one failed and one successful – triggering the most extensive review of U.S. national security policies since 2001. Al-Qaida’s newfound vitality is the product of a fresh strategy that plays to its networking strength and compensates for its numerical weakness,” the report said.
Hoffman added that attrition is part of al-Qaida’s strategy, which is where diversifying the targets comes into play.
“Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-born U.S. resident [was] arrested in New York last September and charged with plotting a ‘Mumbai on the Hudson’ suicide terrorist operation. But while al-Qaida is finding new ways to exploit our weaknesses, we are stuck in a pattern of belated responses, rather than anticipating its moves and developing preemptive strategies,” the report said.
Hoffman’s work, and a study released by Harvard’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs regarding chemical and biological weapons and their use, are the reasons American Thinker editor J. R. Dunn believes malls may be the new targets of choice for terrorists.
“We need only consider the darkest days of the Iraqi terror campaign of 2006-2007 to grasp how the jihadis view marketplaces. Scarcely a week went by without another Iraqi marketplace bombing, with casualties largely consisting of women and children, mounting from the dozens to the hundreds,” Dunn wrote.
“We need only add the fact that the mall in many ways symbolizes the United States to people across the world, acting as kind of American Horn of Plenty, to see the inevitability of the threat. Such attacks will come, and they will be ugly,” Dunn said.
Doug Hagmann of the Northeast Intelligence Network said reports that al-Qaida is seeking to diversify target selection and may even attack American malls are accurate. Information from the Joint Terrorism Task Force verifies terror networks operating in the U.S. believe malls are a legitimate terrorist target, he said.
“Note that an attack on a mall would be an attack on our economy and could likely cause a downturn in shopping, etc.,” Hagmann said.
He said the most likely method would be through a biological weapon.
“Anthrax or other aerosolized weapon in a HVAC, for example makes perfect sense,” Hagmann said, adding, “The United States will likely see an increase in attacks in 2010.”
American Enterprise Institute terrorism analyst Michael Rubin uses Israel as a model to assert that a mall attack is the next logical step.
“If you consider Israel the canary in the coal mine, it can show the progression of targets as security gets beefed up. Terrorists attacking Israel once targeted airplanes and airports but, not being successful, moved onto softer targets: shopping malls, restaurants, and buses,” Rubin said.
Rubin also said that in the terrorist mindset, malls are perfect targets.
“What terrorists want is headlines. Dead women and children make headlines. Unfortunately, the report is probably right,” Rubin said.
However, CounterrrorismBlog.org’s Aaron Mannes believes the threat is minimal.
“Let us assume al-Qaida can smuggle a number of experienced operatives here (no small task – sure one got through on Christmas, but he wasn’t a top operative and the more people in play the greater the possibility of detection.) do they want to use these guys attacking a shopping mall? A higher-profile target would seem in order,” Mannes said.
But that doesn’t make a mall attack impossible.
“On the other hand, local self-starting types might attack malls. These guys have fewer skills and probably could not construct a sophisticated explosive,” Mannes said. “Successful explosive attacks by self-starting cells are few and far between. Explosive construction requires training.”
Mannes believes any attack would likely be with guns.
“The self-starters could launch attacks with firearms. If, in theory, they could
launch many (say a dozen) within a week they might really have an enormous impact. But so far, with a few exceptions, the self-starting groups have shown low-levels of discipline and operational capability,” Mannes said.
“I could easily imagine one really bad attack on a mall, but the flip side to our being an armed society is that we have a certain level of tolerance for firearms rampages,” Mannes said.
Mannes believes there is a reason that airliners have been the more popular target.
“Malls are easier to hit than airliners, but perhaps harder to damage. If you set off a bomb on an airliner you are fairly likely to bring the thing down. You can start shooting at a mall, but you might not hit anyone,” Mannes said.
“Airliners are hard targets and malls are soft targets. But malls are also less appealing targets. They are not iconic images and hitting them doesn’t play on deepest fears they way hitting airplanes does,” Mannes said.
In a recent American Thinker article Dunn cites attacks on malls in recent years, including Kingston, N.Y.; Tacoma, Wash.; Kansas City, Mo; Omaha, Neb.; and Salt Lake City.
Rubin still believes that a mall is a desirable target because it is a “soft target.”
“The U.S. government does not yet understand security. Much of what the TSA does at airports, for example, is more theater than practical. Americans prize convenience and have not recognized their vulnerability. Alas, our security measures are often reactive rather than proactive and so terrorists will always draw first blood,” Rubin said.
“If terrorists hit a mall, the peoples’ minds would change, at least for a few months. But I’m afraid terrorists will hit repeatedly before ordinary people recognize that the world has not changed, terrorists have simply not disappeared, and we must sacrifice some convenience to reduce vulnerability,” Rubin said.
Rubin said his experience in Israel should provide an example for Americans.
“Frankly, when I did a post-doc in Israel – at the height of the 2001-2002 bombing campaign – I would hesitate to go into any restaurant or shopping mall that did not have adequate security at every door, checking bags thoroughly rather than in a pro forma, I’d-rather-not-be-here-TSA-sorta-way,” Rubin said.