How Likely is a Nairobi-Style Attack in the US?


Credit: Devin A./wikimedia

It has been over a week since the Somali Al Qaeda-linked group Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack on a Nairobi mall which has resulted in the deaths of 72 people (including 61 civilians, six members of Kenya's security forces, and five militants). FBI agents have been sent to the site of the massacre despite the fact that the attack took place in Kenya, was carried out by a group from Somalia, no Americans died in the attack (although five were injured), and the attorney general does not believe that there is verifiable intelligence indicating Americans were among the perpetrators.

According to The Los Angeles Times the FBI agents were sent to Nairobi in order to gather information on any plans to carry out similar attacks in the U.S.

Over at The American Conservative Philip Jenkins has written a blog post on how a similar attack could be carried out in an American mall, specifically mentioning Minneapolis. Minnesota is home to a large Somali-American community, and FBI agents have been working on preventing members of that community from aiding Al-Shabab for years.

From The American Conservative:

How on earth did the terrorists do it? Why, they rented a store.

They rented a store.

The tactic must also be gravely worrying for U.S. agencies that have to be thinking very hard about whether—or when—it could happen here. Is there a giant mall in Los Angeles or Minneapolis or Washington, D.C. where some ordinary-looking people took out a lease last year and then ran it quietly and inoffensively, attracting little attention? And where, in the interim, they have been preparing an arsenal in preparation for some key day when shoppers show up in droves?

Several months before the attack, possibly a year, they rented a property in Nairobi's Westgate mall and began a business. All the while, they were using the property to store huge quantities of ammunition, explosives, and grenades. When the terrorists eventually arrived for the deadly day, they already had a fully equipped arsenal on the premises. And they had spent months learning all the mall's vulnerabilities, all the best places to set ambushes. It's nothing short of brilliant.

Jenkins goes on to reject carrying out background checks on everyone that wants to start a new business, but he does go on to say that attacks similar to the recent one in Nairobi could be preemptively addressed by using a strategy that " involves sophisticated intelligence and surveillance." Jenkins does not go into detail about what constitutes "sophisticated intelligence and surveillance."

But how likely is it that a Nairobi-style attack is going to be carried out in an American mall in Minneapolis, or anywhere else in the U.S? Writing on his blog at Foreign Policy Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard, points out that while it might be worth dedicating intelligence gathering efforts to monitoring groups like Al-Shabab, the Nairobi mall attack hardly constitutes a direct threat to American well-being, especially relative to the domestic violence faced by Americans every day:

One cannot completely rule out the possibility that al-Shabab might try to send a few of the Americans it has recruited back to the United States, with orders to try something similar here. It is also possible—though unlikely—that they will succeed in doing something reprehensible, if not on the scale of the recent attack in Kenya. It would be bad if they succeeded—even in just a small way—or if other terrorists managed to shoot American tourists or business people over in Kenya. But is that possibility really so scary, especially relative to other dangers?

Back here in the United States, we've already seen several mass killings of innocent people in the past year: 27 slain in the Newtown school shooting and 12 killed in the recent Navy Yard attack. Here in Boston, there were 51 murders in 2012, and there have been more than 30 already this year. Nationwide, over 30,000 Americans are killed by guns each year (about two-thirds are suicides, but those deaths are still tragic and that still leaves more than 10,000 victims of gun violence). Yet there doesn't seem to be a groundswell of public clamor to declare this obvious danger to American well-being a "national security threat" or to actually do anything about it.

As Reason's Ron Bailey pointed out in 2006, you are far more likely to drown, be killed in a fire, or die in a car accident that you are to be killed in a terrorist attack. While it may be natural to ponder how an incident like the recent attack in Nairobi might play out in the U.S., the fact remains that you are more likely to be killed driving to any American mall than to be the victim of a terrorist attack in one.