Islamic militants Shebab put Westfield malls on terror hit list

The owner of nine New Zealand shopping malls has been singled out in a threatening video released by an Islamic terrorist group. Al-Shebab, also called al-Shabaab – a terrorist group based in parts of the fractured, failed state of Somalia – released a video advising its supporters to attack Westfield malls around the world. The group murdered at least 63 people in a September 2013 attack in the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

In the new video, a suspected al-Shebab operative specifically advocated attacking major shopping centres in countries including Canada and the United States.

Westfield, which was founded in Australia, released a response to the video this afternoon.

Its Australasian arm Scentre Group — which operates 47 Westfield-branded shopping centres on both sides of the Tasman, including nine in New Zealand — said it was taking steps to keep its shopping centres safe.

“There is no evidence of an imminent threat to our shopping centres but as always Scentre Group will take every available step to keep our shopping centres safe for staff, retailers and customers,” it said in a statement today.

“Scentre Group’s policy is to not publicly discuss security procedures, however our heads of security continue to coordinate their activities with police and government agencies.

“As usual, significant resources continue to be devoted to security arrangements in our offices and shopping centres and they continue to operate as normal.”

Several retailers at Westfield malls in central Auckland and Glenfield, on the North Shore, said they had not received any directives from Westfield in response to the video.

“I’ve heard of that story but I haven’t really heard of anything within the Westfield atmosphere here,” one Glenfield retailer said. “I’ve only heard it online.”

The US Homeland Security Department said today NZT it was unaware of any specific plot against American shopping malls.

Former Somali cabinet minister Abdisaid Ali alleged in 2008 that New Zealand business were among those funding extremists in Somalia, of which al-Shebab was by far the most prominent group.

In May 2013, Wellington man Adam Deer’s account was closed following concerns it was being used to launder money or finance terrorism, Fairfax reported.

Mr Deer, who arrived here from Somalia around late 2009, steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and said the money was being sent to his poor mother and other relatives at risk of starvation.

The Wellington Somali Council could not immediately be reached for comment, but Somalians in New Zealand have previously voiced safety concerns when members of the diaspora here were the subjects of adverse publicity.

The US Department of State has said al-Shebab had stolen money from diaspora donors intended for humanitarian purposes.

The New Zealand Government has designated al-Shebab as a terrorist entity, one of 19 such groups.

The group was linked to al-Qaeda and desired the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a nonprofit think-tank based in Washington DC.

The group withered in recent years after a prolonged African Union campaign but remained a threat to peace in other countries, the think-tank added.

The group exploited Somali nationalist, anti-Ethiopian and anti-Western sentiments to seduce some members of the Somali diaspora into adopting its worldview, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) said in a 2012 study.

“While the threat that al-Shabaab poses to the West can easily be overstated, its outreach to Muslims living in Europe and the United States has been successful relative to other al-Qaeda-linked groups and warrants exploration,” the ICSR said.

Al-Shebab enjoyed using Twitter, digital video and alternative media to promote its worldview, and ICSR said the West had been slow to keep tabs on the terrorist outfit’s propaganda.

The video release came as Cabinet discussed the expected deployment of New Zealand troops to help the Iraqi government fight the so-called Islamic State.

Prime Minister John Key will make an announcement on the deployment tomorrow.

Parliament split

Mr Key said this morning that New Zealand did not have a “realistic option of doing nothing” in the fight against Isis.

The proposal to send troops to fight Isis has split Parliament, with even some of Mr Key’s allies vehemently opposed to intervening in the Middle East.

Mr Key has become increasingly vocal about his belief of the nation’s need to intervene, and today said he didn’t believe doing nothing was a realistic option.

Speaking on NewstalkZB this morning, he said he believed the public was “by a majority in favour” of deploying troops to join the fight, because of the increasing brutality of Isis’ violent actions.

“Obviously there are a number of people opposed, so it’s not a slam dunk, but every poll I’ve ever seen … show a majority in favour,” he said.

“I think what the public are responding to, is they’re saying the same thing I’m saying, ‘Well these people are grotesque and they’re brutal’, and we really, I don’t think, have a realistic option of saying [and] doing nothing. So the question becomes, ‘Ok, well what do you do’ because 60 countries are doing something.

High risk

“I think also New Zealanders are prolific travellers, these guys are using the internet to tap into people locally, we travel in the region, we’ve more often than not been the victims, unfortunately, in previous terrorist attacks, so I think people can understand what’s going on.”

Cabinet had “a lot to consider”, but “for the most part” the complexities around the issue had been sorted out.

“There are some very, very minor things, I think, to tidy up, but for the most part I think we’ve got the answers we need.”

If Cabinet votes in favour of sending troops to Iraq, there was “a risk” lives could be lost, Mr Key acknowledged.

“On the basis that if we were to send people, I think you have to accept it’s a high risk environment, so there is a risk [that lives will be lost], I don’t think you can say that there’s absolutely no risk.

“But on the other side of the coin, I think the way to look at that is, ‘do we run the risk of losing lives of New Zealanders on the basis that Isis becomes stronger?’ and the answer, I believe, to that is ‘yes’.”

Mr Key said any decision on whether to send the New Zealand Defence Force to the Middle East would not be announced until tomorrow. He would not be drawn on possible dates for deployment of troops, or a possible return date, if Cabinet does give the green light.

Islamic militants Shebab put Westfield malls on terror hit list