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Inside the Anti-Terror Task Force at the Mall of America

Al-Shabab has named the Mall of American in Minnesota as a target. Security at the mall has been preparing for such an attack for more than a decade.

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The east African terror group al-Shabab has named Mall of America as a target. Unlike the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, which fell easily to the group in September 2013, security forces at Minnesota mall — which is large enough to swallow seven Yankee Stadiums — say they are prepared for an attack.

Since 9/11, law enforcement officials have considered the mall, which has more than 520 stores and upward of 40 million visitors each year, a target. It’s located in Bloomington, Minnesota, about 10 miles outside of Minneapolis, a city with the largest population of Somalis in the United States, some of whom have traveled to Africa to join al-Shabab.

Concerns about a plot against the mall were heightened Sunday when al-Shabab released a video calling for an attack. Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson told shoppers to be “particularly careful" at the mall. But unlike many other retail establishments, which hire inexperienced rent-a-cops to enforce security (think Paul Blart), the Mall of America has its own anti-terrorism task force.

The east African terror group al-Shabab has named Mall of America as a target. Unlike the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, which fell easily to the group in September 2013, security forces at Minnesota mall — which is large enough to swallow seven Yankee Stadiums — say they are prepared for an attack.

Since 9/11, law enforcement officials have considered the mall, which has more than 520 stores and upward of 40 million visitors each year, a target. It’s located in Bloomington, Minnesota, about 10 miles outside of Minneapolis, a city with the largest population of Somalis in the United States, some of whom have traveled to Africa to join al-Shabab.

Concerns about a plot against the mall were heightened Sunday when al-Shabab released a video calling for an attack. Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson told shoppers to be “particularly careful” at the mall. But unlike many other retail establishments, which hire inexperienced rent-a-cops to enforce security (think Paul Blart), the Mall of America has its own anti-terrorism task force.

According to 2008 congressional testimony of Doug Reynolds, security director for Mall of America, the mall has a Risk Assessment and Mitigation unit modeled after similar units in Israel. Members of the group are trained in Israel at the expense of Triple Five Group, the conglomerate that owns the mall.

“These officers look for intent, rather than means. The objective is to focus on suspicious indicators in three categories: People, vehicles and unattended items like backpacks, shopping bags, suitcases,” Reynolds told House lawmakers in 2008. “Our unit has eight full-time equivalent positions and is staffed every day of the year.”

The unit has courted controversy. A 2011 investigation by NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting found the counterterror unit has questioned innocent people over seemingly innocuous behavior. This includes a 62-year old Iranian man who passed out during questioning and an Army veteran who had recorded video inside the mall. The task force also assembled extensive dossiers on people that included personal information like Social Security numbers without their knowledge.

Triple Five Group did not return a request for comment.

The counterterror unit is only part of the mall’s security apparatus. Security officers at the mall undergo 240 hours of training, which Reynold said includes communication techniques, first aid, defensive tactics, crisis intervention, terrorism awareness, and rapid response. They also receive training in “verbal judo,” he said. The mall also has canine bomb detection teams and ion detection units that can detect chemical weapons.

It’s also worth noting that one of the primary reasons the Westgate siege in Nairobi was so successful is that members of al-Shabab paid off poorly trained and paid security guards to look the other way as the group smuggled weapons and explosives into the mall prior to the attack. It’s unlikely members of the Mall of America’s 150-strong security force would be susceptible to similar graft.

Photo Credit: Adam Bettcher

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