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Terrorists urge followers to attack Mall of America: Amid scare, officials reveal security measures for shopping center

Pioneer Press Photo by Ben Garvin A Bloomington, Minn., police officer, left, and a Mall of America security guard patrol as part of the extra mall security that could be seen at the mall on Monday.

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Facing a terror threat and a nervous public, the Mall of America pulled back the curtains halfway on its security operations Monday, signaling how seriously it takes safety issues.

For the first time, reporters were shown the mall’s underground operations center, along with its corps of bomb-sniffing dogs, its officer-training exercises and security at its hardened loading dock where “vehicles are getting swabbed down and checked” for explosives, an official said.

“This is a safe place,” Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts told reporters inside the megamall. “We encourage people to come on out and shop.”

Meanwhile, a group representing Somali immigrants in Minnesota condemned Saturday’s video terror threat against the mall “in the strongest possible terms.”

“The safety and security of Minnesotans and of Americans is of utmost importance to Somali-Americans,” said a statement issued by the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Minnesota, on behalf of the state’s Somali-American community, the largest such immigrant cluster of any state.

“We condemn all forms of terrorism or threats of terrorism, repudiate any individual or group that would carry out such attacks or make such threats, and remain committed to being at the forefront of defeating religious or political extremism,” the statement said.

On Saturday, a video released by the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab in Africa urged followers to attack retail sites in the United States, Canada and England. The veiled figure in the video specifically named the Mall of America, and the video gave the mall’s GPS coordinates.

That same terror group has claimed responsibility for a deadly 2013 attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where more than 60 people were killed.

Federal officials have given mixed messages about the latest video, saying they’re not aware of any specific, credible plots against the Mall of America, even as the Homeland Security chief on Sunday urged shoppers to be “particularly careful.”

Mall of America officials have said that they’ve scaled up their security operations, both those visible to the public and those that aren’t.

Mall security and Bloomington police wouldn’t talk about every security measure Monday. But they signaled that the massive facility has been dealing with terrorism concerns for years, and have responded with layers of safeguards.

“We’ve dealt with this thing in the past,” Potts said Monday. “There was a statement in the video (Saturday) that mentioned Mall of America. It was very general; there were no specifics. But we’ve built contingency plans for years.”

Shopper traffic at the megamall was heavy Saturday, then a bit lighter on Sunday as the temperature plunged and the news spread. By Monday afternoon, traffic inside the mall was very light, but officials didn’t attribute that to a terrorism scare.

“Today is Monday in Minnesota when it’s 10 below,” said mall spokesman Dan Jasper. “So it’s like any other Monday in Minnesota when it’s 10 below.”

Chief of Security Doug Reynolds highlighted some of the multiple security layers at the mall, including a group of five dogs that have a single purpose: sniffing explosives. The dogs are chosen both for their detection abilities and for not looking scary to children and other shoppers.

Whenever the mall is open, at least two dogs are always on duty.

Officers on bicycles are always patrolling the perimeter, watching for anything suspicious.

A network of “hundreds” of security cameras are all fed into an underground center, which also includes banks of video screens, communications equipment and computers. And inside the mall, teams of mall security and Bloomington police officers are patrolling the corridors.

In an underground training room, security training supervisor Lt. Zach Hamann demonstrated how he put security trainees through their paces, part of a four-month-long required training regiment, Reynolds said.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s video from the Somali terrorist group has sent ripples in other directions.

Omar Jamal, chief executive of a local group, American Friends of Somalia, said Monday that members of the Somali community have reported some “minor backlash” after the video when visiting Twin Cities shopping malls.

“People are complaining that people are staring at them,” said Jamal, who could not specify the malls. “Some people are telling them, ‘Why did you come here today? What do you want? Why don’t you go back where you came from?’ They felt like an outsider. And that is what al-Shabaab wants to happen.”

Jamal asked the public not to “fall for the fear tactics of al-Shabaab,” adding that, “We are calling for all Minnesotans to be vigilant and work together.”

But terror ties have been a concern in the Twin Cities for years. Since 2007, more than 20 young Somali men have left Minnesota to train and fight for al-Shabaab in Somalia, authorities say.

Katie Kather contributed to this report. The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.