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Warnings of US Vulnerability to Terror Attacks During DHS Shutdown Might Be 'Playing Politics'

The head of US Homeland Security urged politicians not to allow a department shutdown amid terror threats from al Shabaab. But experts told VICE News that there may be other motives at play.

by Colleen Curry
Feb 24 2015, 2:10pm

Photo by Cliff Owen/AP

A video released by Somali militant group al Shabaab this weekend threatening terror attacks against shopping malls in the West boosted claims by the Obama administration that a possible government shutdown this week could leave the United States vulnerable to such attacks.

The al Shabaab footage caused officials in the US, France, UK, and Canada to increase security operations around malls after the group called for "dedicated mujahideen" to attack shopping centers. They named the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, as an example, spurring officials to beef up its own security team.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson responded to the threat over the weekend, saying that shoppers should be vigilant, but he also used the video as a warning to politicians who are edging closer to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shutdown, saying that counterterrorism operations would be affected.

Al Shabaab calls for attacks on Western shopping malls in new video. Read more here.

DHS funding will run out on Friday unless Congress votes on a new budget for the department. The latest attempt to move that process forward in the US Senate failed by a vote of 47 to 46 on Monday. Republican lawmakers are refusing to authorize any funding in protest against President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration.

A shutdown would result in thousands of DHS workers being furloughed, which Johnson and Obama both said was reckless in the current climate of domestic terror threats.

"If our headquarters staff is cut back to a skeleton, that inhibits our ability to stay on top of a lot of the existing situations and challenges to homeland security right now," Johnson said at a press conference.

"This is not the time to be shutting down the Department of Homeland Security by failure to act," he told the New York Times. Politicians, he said, were "indulging in a fantasy to believe you can shut down the DHS and there be no impact to homeland security itself."

Obama also invoked national security when speaking about the threat of a DHS shutdown at a meeting with the National Governors Association at the White House on Monday. "We can't afford to play politics with our national security," he told governors from across the US.

Terror experts say, however, that Johnson's statements may also be more the result of politics than actual vulnerability to terrorism.

"Most of the high-priority counterterrorism policies and initiatives aren't going to get impacted by a temporary shutdown," Stuart Gottlieb, professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, told VICE News. "They're on special funding. It's not like you shutdown the government and the NSA stops spying and drones stop shooting things down. They're not going to leave high-priority and counterterrorism initiatives totally unfunded."

Some efforts will have to be prioritized over others, Gottlieb conceded, but the department would likely remain focused on potential threats. "These things always get political," he said.

Former Al Shabaab official says extremist group is in total collapse. Read more here.

Patrick Skinner, director of special projects for the Soufan Group, told VICE News that furloughs likely wouldn't affect intelligence gathering and sharing operations, at least in the short term, but that it could affect federal agents' work with local law enforcement agencies.

"And that's not good, since it's the local and the state police that are the action and responding arm to any materializing threat," Skinner said. "Government is inefficient as is; anything that makes it worse really is unhelpful when it comes to counterterrorism effects."

That the shutdown may occur just days after the threat from al Shabaab doesn't necessarily indicate the group has knowledge of US vulnerabilities, the experts said. If they are aware of the politics, they may see it merely as a way to get an extra "fear bounce out of their threats, knowing the public is now aware of a threat at a time of potential shutdown," Skinner said.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen