Placing Bomb Threats in Perspective
In the wake of the recent wave of bomb threats placed to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) I was asked about the threats and what they mean for the HBCU institutions and their students.
When investigating, law enforcement agencies must ask themselves if a bomb threat is specific and if it is plausible. Comprehending the rationale behind such questions will help security teams and leadership understand more about bombs, bomb threats, and how to respond to them.
Who Uses Bombs?
There are three distinct categories of terrorist and criminal actors who place bombs:
- Actors who seek to kill people
- Actors who seek to cause material damage but not kill people
- Those who seek to cause a disruption or gain publicity but not detonate the device
Category one actors include international terrorists such as the jihadists who conducted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing; domestic terrorists who perpetrated the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 1978-1995 UNABOMB attacks; and criminals like biker gangs who use pipe bombs to murder or intimidate rivals.
Because this category of actor is seeking to kill, they do not make bomb threat calls because they do not want to warn potential victims away from the kill zone of their devices. They want to cause maximum carnage.
Category two actors include international terrorist groups such as the Basque separatist group ETA in Spain; domestic terrorists such as 1996 Olympic Park Bomber Eric Rudolph; and non-terrorists such as the 2020 Nashville Christmas bomber.
These bombers want to use their bombings to make a statement or garner attention, but do not want to kill innocent bystanders, and therefore frequently make warning calls to minimize innocent casualties by clearing people away from the detonation site.
In cases where category two bombers do not give warnings, they often seek to place their bombs in places unlikely to cause death or injury or detonate the bombs at times when it is unlikely people will be in the vicinity.
For example, in the Sept. 2003 bombing of Shaklee in Pleasanton, CA, the animal rights activist detonated the device in front of the building at 3:35 am.
A more recent example was the Jan. 5, 2021, case involving the still-unidentified person who left pipe bombs on Capitol Hill near the Republican and Democratic National Committee offices. These devices were small pipe bombs, placed in innocuous locations, and were intended to be detonated when no one was in the buildings. They were clearly intended to make a statement, but not kill people.
Category three actors may place or send incomplete bombs, completed bombs that are not armed, or even a collection of bomb components, with the intent of intimidating or terrorizing their target.
Examples of this include the case where Caesar Sayoc, an unbalanced Trump supporter, sent hoax bombs to a number of media and political figures in October 2018.
Those devices had everything required to be categorized as an explosive device, but from their construction and deployment, it was clear they were not intended to detonate.
In a similar case I investigated in February 1997, a Jewish extremist placed a non-functional pipe bomb in a Jacksonville, FL synagogue in an attempt to prevent former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres from speaking at an event there. Again, the device had the components required to be classified as an explosive device but was not intended to be detonated.
In a non-ideological example, a financially motivated criminal calling himself “The Bishop” sent bomb components to a series of financial institutions from 2005 to 2007 in an attempt to manipulate the price of certain stocks. He threatened to send live bombs to his targets if the price levels he set for those stocks were not met.
Bomb Warnings vs. Bomb Threats
Actors who seek to use bombs to kill people do not communicate their intent because such a warning would reduce the number of potential victims. Conversely, when someone does make a communication regarding a bomb, it is either a warning from someone who seeks to avoid casualties or a bomb threat.
Bomb warnings tend to be direct, specific, and feasible. They typically contain a deadline that is tight enough to allow for an evacuation, but that does not provide enough time for an explosive ordnance disposal team to respond to defuse the bomb.
In the March 1971 bombing attack on the U.S. Capitol building, the Capitol switchboard operator received a call that warned: “This building will blow up in 30 minutes. You will get many calls like this, but this one is real. Evacuate the building. This is in protest of the Nixon involvement in Laos.”
In the Olympic Park bombing, Eric Rudolph’s bomb warning simply stated: “There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes.″
Many established terrorist groups that have issued bomb warnings such as the ETA in Spain or the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, establish code words used to prove the authenticity of a bomb warning communication.
Unlike bomb warnings, bomb threats are just hoaxes and are not connected to an actual bomb.
Bomb threats can be made maliciously, or as a prank. They are intended to scare and disrupt.
Bomb threats tend to be vague, providing very little specific information about where the bomb is placed, or when it will detonate.
In the case in which a bomb threat sent a letter stating—“Bomb At Islip Town Hall – Today!!!” —the sender of such a letter would not have a good idea of precisely when the letter would be received and read, making it ineffective as a bomb warning.
Bomb threats have been made in graffiti, in notes left in a public place, or in an email or social media post. In such cases, the person making the threat has no assurance of when, or if, the note will be read.
Those making bomb warnings, significantly, take pains to ensure that their communication is promptly received and acted upon.
Quite often bomb threats are also implausible, such as threats that claim to have placed multiple bombs in a building or involving unrealistically large quantities of hard-to-obtain military explosives.
A good example of this was the hoax threats made by the “Evacuation Squad” in 2015-2016 to schools across the globe in exchange for a payment in Bitcoin. In one threat, the Evacuation Squad threat claimed to have placed bombs containing nerve agent in several Los Angeles schools—clearly an unrealistic threat.
In the recent bomb threats targeting HBCUs, the threats targeted more than a dozen schools across multiple states, and it is simply not plausible for an actor to place bombs across such a wide swath of the country.
Another dead giveaway that a bomb threat is a hoax and not a warning is when the person making the threat issues the threat in the name of a group such as al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or Atomwaffen, that would use a bomb in an attack if they possessed one, rather than issue a bomb warning.
The Danger of Overreacting to Hoax Bomb Threats
Frequently the decision after receiving a hoax bomb threat is to evacuate and search a facility.
The decision-maker believes this to be the “safest” course of action, and one that will protect them from blame in the extremely unlikely chance that there is an actual explosive device connected to the threat.
Evacuation is considered a way to deflect legal or political liability.
An evacuation and high-profile police search of the facility also provides a very public demonstration that “something is being done” about a perceived threat. This is especially the case when bomb threats are picked up by the media.
However, there are some significant disadvantages to such a knee-jerk reaction to a hoax bomb threat.
Such a reaction will often encourage the hoaxer to make repeated threats, resulting in additional disruptive and costly evacuations.
An evacuation can also serve to move students or employees from a place of relative safety into a less secure environment.
In the December 2015 Evacuation Squad incident mentioned above, the Los Angeles school district canceled school for all schools in the city, impacting over 640,000 students. Among those students was a 17-year-old who was struck and killed by a city bus on the way home shortly after classes were canceled.
By contrast, New York City schools received a very similar threat email from the Evacuation Squad the same day and decided to ignore it, deeming it an implausible hoax.
It is also worth considering that with a non-specific bomb threat, the purported device could be anywhere, including outside the building. It would be easier to place a bomb outside the building, such as a school or office building that has good access control, than to get one inside the building.
More importantly, sending people outside also makes them more vulnerable to other forms of attack, such as armed assaults, vehicular assaults, or even edged weapon attacks. In the 1998 Jonesboro AR school shooting, the attackers pulled a fire alarm to get teachers and students out of the school building and into their kill zone.
Recently, the shooter in the February 2018 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School attack in Parkland, FL also pulled the fire alarm to get students out of their classrooms and into the halls where he could fire at them.
Evacuating a school or office building due to a hoax bomb threat could have the same effect as those fire alarms.
Because of this, it is important for security teams and leadership to recognize the difference between bomb warnings and hoax threat calls and to carefully analyze bomb threat communications to determine if they are a true warning, or a hoax threat, before deciding on a course of action.