A Better Understanding

A Better Understanding

Hoax bomb threats have become a cottage industry

On the morning of Oct. 5, someone placed anonymous telephone calls to four high schools in Springfield, Ill., claiming in each call that that there was a bomb in the school and that everyone needed to get out of the building. In response to the unfounded calls, the students from all four schools were evacuated to designated off-site locations while the authorities searched the schools for bombs.

These calls were merely the latest in a long string of anonymous hoax bomb threats directed at schools across the United States – and indeed the world. Hoax bomb threats have become a cottage industry, with individuals and groups online offering to call in an anonymous bomb threat to a school for as little as the equivalent of $20 in Bitcoin. The scale of the issue was illustrated by the arrest of an Israeli teenager in April of 2017 who was charged with making thousands of bomb threats across the globe. The 18-year-old reportedly had $500,000 in his Bitcoin account at the time of his arrest.

When authorities respond to a vague, anonymous bomb threat by evacuating a school, they cause significant disruptions and give those seeking to propagate terror (or delay a chemistry exam) a cheap, easy victory. Even worse than the fear and disruption they generate, such reactions to bomb threats can also provide terrorists or mass shooters with a soft target. Evacuating people from a place of relative security out into the open makes them more vulnerable to attacks with a variety of weapons, including bombs, guns, knives and vehicles.

BOMB WARNINGS AND BOMB THREATS

There is a crucial difference between a bomb warning and a bomb threat – a difference that dictates a different response to each. Historically, terrorist groups such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and the Basque separatist group ETA established coded phrases with the authorities that were used to provide warning of a bombing in order to prevent civilian casualties. Such warnings were generally telephoned into a police station or media outlet with the intention of providing enough time for civilians to evacuate an area but not enough time for the bomb squad to deactivate the device before its detonation.

Groups that employed such warnings obviously sought to limit civilian casualties, the exact opposite motive of jihadi terrorists for whom groups of civilians from Baghdad to Bali to Boston have become the primary target. Such warnings would naturally cut against the jihadi goal of generating maximum civilian casualties. And since jihadi simply don’t make warning calls, any bomb threat purportedly from jihadi should be approached with a great deal of skepticism.

The same is true of mass killers who have been involved in past school attacks such as Columbine and Sandy Hook. The goal of such an attacker is to create the maximum death toll, and making a warning call is quite simply counterproductive to that end.

Context is incredibly important for understanding how to correctly analyze a bomb threat call. Obviously, a call related to a group operating like the PIRA or ETA and using coded signals as bomb warnings should be handled far differently than a call received from a jihadi group that does not use such calls. Calls purportedly from jihadi should be treated differently than calls from animal rights activists, many of whom do not purposefully seek to kill or injure people when they damage property with bombs. Because of these distinctions, the identity of the group or cause purportedly making the threat is important.

Beyond the code words used in legitimate bomb warning calls and the nature of the group making the claim, the information contained in bomb warning messages has historically proved to be quite different from that used in hoax threats. Bomb warning calls tend to be very specific, noting the type of bomb involved, its location and the planned time of detonation. On the other hand, hoax bomb threats intended to scare or disrupt tend to be very general, rarely if ever containing specifics. In addition to being vague, hoax bomb calls most often threaten multiple targets, more than most legitimate terrorists are in fact capable of bombing.

Indeed, many of the bogus bomb threat calls directed at schools worldwide over the past few years by the group calling itself “Evacuation Squad” have threatened multiple schools, sometimes up to 10 or more schools in a city. The idea of a group possessing the capability to make and plant that many bombs in schools – and then warning of their plot before they can kill anyone – is simply not rational.

Based on decades of experience resulting in a deep understanding of bomb threats, government policy has long been to urge employees to carefully note the language used in threatening calls in accordance with guidance contained within widely distributed bomb threat call checklists.

Many government agency phone books have the bomb checklist in a prominent place. Switchboard and emergency call center operators are furnished with copies of the lists and trained how to handle such calls. People receiving threatening calls are encouraged to take careful notes, question the caller, record the call if possible and attempt to get a second person on the line to listen. Because of this procedure, it is rare for staff in government buildings to be evacuated in response to a bomb threat.

Most agencies conduct periodic bomb threat drills in which the objective is to quickly and efficiently sweep the building for suspicious items rather than just evacuate the building as during a fire drill, employing the logic that workers are more likely than outsiders to know what is normal in their work areas versus what is suspicious.

The evacuation of part or all of a building is only considered after a suspicious item has been found. This is intended not only to help combat disruptions but also to prevent an unnecessary evacuation of a building that could take employees from a place of relative security to an outside area where they would be more vulnerable to attack. Employees inside a large office building are far less vulnerable to injury or death from a small device such as a pipe bomb than are employees standing in a parking lot or on the street.

AN INTELLIGENT RESPONSE

On one level it is easy to understand why many school administrators make the call to evacuate a school targeted by a hoax threat. Many consider this the safest course of action, often partially based on the thinking that this will prevent them from being blamed if there actually turns out to be an explosive device. An evacuation and high-profile police search of the premises can also provide the public with emotional reassurance that “something is being done” about the perceived threat.

Even so, automatic evacuation is not the best choice of action when a non-specific bomb threat is received or a threat is made in the name of a group that does not issue bomb threats before attacks, such as the Islamic State. In cases when the threat does not identify a specific classroom or building, sending people out into the open air can put them in more danger than keeping them in place. Besides, given a non-specific threat, the potential device could be anywhere, including outside the building. Indeed, it is generally easier to place a device outside a building than to get one inside, especially when the target has viable security. By sending people outside, authorities send them from a place of relative safety to one where they are far more vulnerable to attack.

Intentional attacks are not the only danger that can arise in the wake of an evacuation. In May of 2016, the Los Angeles Unified School District closed down all 900 Los Angeles schools after receiving an email claiming that 32 people were preparing to attack Los Angeles schools with explosive devices containing a nerve agent. A 17-year-old student was killed after being struck by a city street service vehicle after the closure, amplifying the criticism received by the Los Angeles School Board for responding to such an obvious hoax threat. New York schools received an identical threat at almost the same time as Los Angeles but instead chose to stay open.

But aside from accidents involving students sent home due to bomb threats, we have seen several cases in which “hunter” terrorists and mass killers have used panic and herd mentality to force people into a designated kill zone. This was seen in a school context in the 1998 Jonesboro, Ark., school shooting when the killers used a fire alarm to herd victims into their kill zone – the fire alarm assembly area outside the school.

In a bomb threat situation, school administrators or security directors who decide to evacuate a facility can actually aid attackers by forcing people to congregate in an assembly area that terrorist planners have identified and planned to make into a kill zone. This is especially true in situations where people evacuated from a building are required to report to a designated assembly area for accountability purposes. In the Springfield example, cited in the introduction, each of the four schools was evacuated to a designated location that was then announced in the press to inform parents where their children were. The result is that a would-be attacker will know where they are heading the next time a hoax bomb threat is made and could use that knowledge to conduct an attack using any sort of weapon.

Indeed, automatically responding to every bomb threat in the same manner without assessing the veracity of the threat very well could turn out to be a deadly decision rather than the safest call to make. Because of this, school administrators are urged to carefully review their bomb threat protocols and plans to ensure they make intelligent responses to the next bomb threat they receive.

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of CSLS.

Digital Edition

  • Campus Security & Life Safety Magazine - january 2018

    January 2018

    Featuring:

    • Finding A Balance
    • Preventing A Major Attack
    • Decentralized Assets, Centralized Control
    • A Better Understanding
    • Streamlining Today's Campuses

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