So, why the threat now? And how worried should we be? The answer to the first question is easy. Al-Shabaab is trying to get attention. And it succeeded.
Al-Shabaab desperately needed such attention for two reasons. For a start, it has been entirely overshadowed by the violent extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over the past year. The fact is that ISIS is garnering virtually all of the media coverage of extremists, and as a result is attracting virtually all the recruits and money from the patrons of violent extremism.
This has left jihadi groups like al Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab struggling to reclaim some of the spotlight from their new "rival," and a call to attack Western shopping malls was a chance to earn some easy headlines while also trying to burnish international credentials that were badly tarnished in 2012 when it suffered a bloody internal purge that killed off some of its most prominent foreign leaders and disheartened former supporters.
But Al-Shabaab also had a potential marketing problem on its hands with the release of a new propaganda video, "The Westgate Siege: Retributive Justice." That 75-minute long video was an uninspired tirade against the Kenyan government that said nothing the group had not claimed many times before. It was far too long and doomed to be ignored. By tacking on a call in the final minute of the film for Muslims in the West to attack shopping malls -- and then naming specific targets -- the producers guaranteed that their otherwise forgettable video would get global headlines. It was a clever marketing move.
Does Al-Shabaab have a legitimate grievance against the three countries it singled out? Of course, these governments all support the Somali Federal Government and the African Union peacekeeping forces in Somalia, both of which are fighting against Al-Shabaab. The United States, moreover, has launched a number of drone and missile attacks against Al-Shabaab, killing their leader Ahmed Godane in 2014. Some would view this as justification for Al-Shabaab to "take the war to the West."
But the reality is that many dozens of countries, from Norway to the United Arab Emirates to China, give robust support to the Somali Federal Government and assist it in the fight against Al-Shabaab. The reason Al-Shabaab singled out these three countries is therefore more venal -- those are the three nations with the highest concentrations of Somali diaspora members.
So, how worried should we be if this was mostly a marketing ploy? Exactly as worried as we were before the video was released.
The threat of "lone wolf" terrorism -- a single individual who is inspired to commit an act of terrorism in the name of a radical cause -- has long been a major homeland security concern. For years, violent extremist groups such as ISIS, al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula and Al-Shabaab have been calling on Muslims living in the West to wage jihad against the unbelievers on their home soil. For example, the former leader of AQAP, a U.S.-born cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki
, gained notoriety for a cover article in his English- language "Inspire" magazine entitled "How to Make a Bomb in Your Mom's Kitchen." Likewise, in a 2013 video, Al-Shabaab called on Muslims in the West "to grab whatever you've got" to attack non-Muslims.
Despite such calls to action, though, the good news is that very few Muslim citizens in the West have paid any attention to these calls to war. Al-Shabaab's 2013 video failed to inspire any known acts of violence, and its current video will probably meet the same fate. Moreover, the plea to individual "holy warriors" to launch attacks is an implicit admission that Al-Shabaab lacks the network of operatives to conduct a planned terrorist attack itself.
The bad news is that lone wolf attacks are difficult or even impossible for law enforcement to track and prevent. In every country in the world, a small percentage of deeply troubled, angry, and impressionable individuals are susceptible to calls to political violence. Denmark just suffered from a fatal act of terrorism by a lone-wolf attacker with no radical Islamist links but who was seized with uncontrolled anger at Danish society. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings were allegedly planned and executed by two self-radicalized Chechen brothers.
We can and should reduce the threat of homegrown terrorism, but we will never be able to stop it entirely. Vigilance, which Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called for after the Al-Shabaab threat, is entirely appropriate. But vigilance must not be an excuse for overreaction. After all, an overreaction is exactly what the jihadists are hoping to provoke.