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Al Shabab Mall Threat Unlikely to Deter American Shoppers

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Maybe snow and sleet would keep Americans from heading to malls, but al Shabab? Not so much.

The Somali terror group, which was responsible for a 2013 attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya that killed dozens, in a video urged radicals to undertake “lone-wolf” attacks on shopping centers in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. It singled out the Minneapolis-area Mall of America, which is in a region that includes the largest Somali-American community in the country. Malls in the U.S. and Canada were on high alert Monday.

“We are kind of in uncharted territory on this one,” Garrick Brown, a regional vice president of research at real estate services company DTZ, said via email. “[Terror groups] putting a call out to encourage American lone gunman types is something that we don't have a good gauge on.”

On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Americans have to be “particularly vigilant” and aware of their surroundings. “I am not telling people to not go to the mall,” he said.

The terror group’s threat could still be a headache the retail sector doesn’t need right now following a disappointing holiday season, however.

Barring an actual attack, it’s unlikely that Americans will change their shopping habits much. “I think they might see a small decline in traffic today, tomorrow and maybe over the next few days,” Brown predicted. “But so long as nothing actually happens I don't think that the decline in traffic will be much or long.”

“I think they might see a small decline in traffic today, tomorrow and maybe over the next few days.”

It would be hard to determine if any drop in mall traffic would be due to fear of an attack as opposed to a combination of other factors, said Stan Veuger, a resident scholar and economist at the American Enterprise Institute. Poor weather, a lack of discretionary income and the appeal of shopping online also could play a role. “It’s always tough to separate these things from broader trends,” he said.

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Industry says it's ready

Retail industry representatives say they are ready to handle any threats. “Since 9/11, this has been on everybody’s radar screen,” said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. “The industry has put a lot of time and effort into training, into safety measures — it’s not like we’re starting from scratch.”

“Employee and customer safety is a critical responsibility that retailers take very seriously,” National Retail Federation senior vice president Bill Thorne said in a statement.

Shopping centers can hire extra security staff and increase the police presence from their local department, Kavanagh said. Other security measures less visible to customers, like searching delivery trucks arriving at the mall, could also be undertaken, he said.

But aside from a larger and more visible security presence, malls might be limited in efforts they can implement to prevent attacks. Metal detectors or other screening technology forces people to wait in line, an inconvenience malls wouldn’t want to foist on consumers.

“It’s a known fact that people value their time,” said Tom LaTourrette, a physical scientist at Rand Corporation. “Most security involves lines. That’s one of the most common problems,” he said.

“I think for American shopping malls, that would just backfire,” Veuger said.

The Mall of America did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In an earlier statement, it said: "We will continue to follow the situation, along with law enforcement, and will remain vigilant as we always do in similar situations."

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