A video that appears to list West Edmonton Mall as a possible target by the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group al-Shabaab "is a very serious threat" that could impact other Canadian shopping centres, says a former senior intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
In the 77-minute video posted online over the weekend, a masked member of the extremist group appears to call on followers to attack shopping malls across North America and Europe.
Edmonton police say they are working closely with RCMP and West Edmonton Mall security to ensure necessary precautions are being made.
Deputy police Chief Brian Simpson said Sunday: “This was a very general comment ... it wasn’t a specific threat.”
But Michel Juneau-Katsuya, formerly with CSIS, said that is precisely what makes the threat more dangerous.
He said CSIS and RCMP will closely monitor communications and links between Canadians and al-Shabaab.
“The challenge is, that they don’t necessarily need to be in communication with al-Shabaab — they can simply sort of take the initiative, find weapons … and lead the attack. Just put the call out and somebody might answer it. So that’s very difficult for the authorities to be able to predict — the who and where.”
Paul Joosse, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, recently co-authored a paper about al-Shabaab that will be published soon in the British Journal of Criminology.
He said al-Shabaab is one of more radical factions operating in Somalia. The group gained global notoriety in September 2013 when it attacked Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and killed 66 people.
The video posted online this weekend was intended, at least in part, to call attention to that attack, Joosee said.
“Groups tend to develop what we call in social movement literature repertoires, which means they tend to see tactics as successful and try to repeat them, or at least call attention to them. These sort of things become a calling card.”
Asked about the threats in this recent video, Joosse said he doesn't think people here needed to be overly concerned.
“There’s nothing to indicate that this is anything other than a fantasy on the part of the group itself," he said. "The fact that they have this open call actually suggests, to me anyway, that they don’t have secret operatives working in, say, North America, in Minneapolis or Edmonton. This is basically a hail-Mary pass, a shot in the dark.”
Joosse said his research among the Somali-Canadian communities in Toronto and Edmonton has found virtually no support for the group in Canada.
"However, there could be the possibility of something happening," said Abdi Hersy, a leader in Alberta's large Somali-Canadian community. "There are young kids in the shadows, unattended, marginalized. As long as they feel [they are] not belonging here or to Canadian culture … those who did not graduate from high school, not employed or underemployed, they could be potential responders.”
Hersy said governments in Canada need to address the root causes of radicalization, including education and employment.
“This young man who is talking to these guys [on the video] is from the West. And he’s calling for them. And they can kind of share some commonality. Here, they feel they don’t belong, and they’re not feeling the prosperity of Canada and the dream in Canada.”
Most Canadians of Somali descent believe in Canada, and want to stay and build betters lives here, he said.
'They are gangsters'
Al-Shabaab has lost most of its territory in Somalia. The video targeted the Mall of America in Minneapolis and West Edmonton Mall, Hersy said, because both cities have large communities of people of Somali descent.
He gave this advice to young people who might be tempted to listen to the video's radical message: "This group doesn’t belong to any religion. They are gangsters. Do not be deceived by the Qur'an they read at the beginning and the end of their propaganda video. Everything in the middle is a crime against innocent people.”
No Islamic scholar would support the group's radical interpretation of Islam, Hersy said.
Juneau-Katsuya noted that shopping malls are notoriously difficult to secure, adding that Edmonton’s winter also means it is normal for people to be wearing bulky coats that can be used to conceal weapons.
“Definitely in terms of percentage of high risk, this is considered a very serious threat and the owners of the shopping mall as well as the authorities need to take that very seriously.”
Al-Shabaab in Canada
Asked "why Edmonton?" Juneau-Katsuya pointed out that al-Shabaab has used Canada as a site for recruitment in the past, and has “a certain amount of supporters.”
- Edmonton Somali group wants Harper's help to prevent ISIS recruitment
- Terrorism-related cases with Canadian connections
Several Canadians are known to have left the country to try to reach out to al-Shabaab. In 2014, one man was convicted and sentenced to 10 years for trying to leave Canada to join the terrorist group.
“It is unfortunately, not totally a surprise to see this sort of accumulation of events that leads to this situation where al-Shabaab is now trying — as ISIS has been trying — to reach out to their supporters, not necessarily to call them to come but to go into action,” he said.
Juneau-Katsuya also said Saturday’s video bears many similarities to the propaganda videos created by ISIS and shared on social media, identifying a specific target and group.
Al-Shabaab, which is known to be one of the most violent terrorist groups in East Africa, was behind the 2013 attack on a mall in Kenya that left 60 people dead.
On Sunday, politicians issued releases to address the possible threat in Edmonton.
Alberta Premier Jim Prentice said. "I share the concerns of Albertans about the recent apparent terrorist threat against North American shopping centres, including West Edmonton Mall.
"The RCMP have reassured the public that there is no evidence of any imminent threat to public safety, and the ownership and management of West Edmonton Mall have indicated that additional safety and security precautions are being put in place.
"Our law enforcement and security services do excellent work in keeping Albertans safe, and I am confident they are treating this matter seriously," Prentice added. "While vigilance among the public is important, the ultimate victory over those who would do us harm is to live our lives in freedom. On this day, I would encourage all Albertans to do just that — enjoy our friends, families and the province we love in the same way we always do."
Steven Blaney, Canada’s minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, said “Canada will not be intimidated by threats from any terrorist organization, which is why we are not sitting on the sidelines and instead joining our allies in supporting the international coalition in the fight against ISIL [ISIS].
"Our national security and law enforcement agencies are continually monitoring for threats against Canada and its citizens and will take the appropriate actions to ensure the safety of Albertans and all Canadians," the statement Sunday said.
Prentice said Canada's anti-terror legislation aims "to further protect Canadians against jihadi terrorists who seek to destroy the very principles that make Canada the best country in the world to live.”