‘It becomes a nightmare’: the rise of the viral bomb threat and how it makes the job of police harder
On Thursday, dozens of establishments across North America received bomb threats via email, many of which have now been deemed a hoax by law enforcement. Most organizations impacted received the same email, written in imperfect English, warning that unless $20,000 in bitcoin was paid, a bomb would go off.
According to police and experts, technology makes this kind of mass threat easier to send. Both parties agree, however, that no matter how many organizations receive the same threat at once or how often these kinds of threats are deemed non-credible, it doesn’t change the way police respond.
“The problem with that thinking is if you believe they’re related and this is nonsense, then your investigation suffers and your response suffers,” Const. David Hopkinson with the Toronto Police Service said.
“We know … that a number of other cities have received bomb threats. To us, that doesn’t matter — we will investigate them seriously every time.”
Cities across North America were targeted by the bomb threats — including Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary, Penticton, Vernon, Toronto, Kamloops and Winnipeg — prompting evacuations and shutdowns in Aurora, Ill., Raleigh, N.C., and Atlanta, Ga., among others.
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Thursday’s scare came less than two months after prominent Democratic officials and CNN’s Manhattan offices were targeted by package bombs. The suspect in that case, Cesar Sayoc, is in jail awaiting trial.
A similar wave of emailed hoax bomb threats in December 2015 prompted officials in Los Angeles to close the city’s public school system, which national law enforcement officials later criticized as an overreaction. The Los Angeles school system closed down under threat of a mass attack, but New York City officials quickly saw it as a hoax.
WATCH: Emailed bomb threats
A teenager with dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship was arrested in Israel in March 2017 for making bomb threats to more than 100 Jewish organizations and Jewish community centres in dozens of U.S. states over several months.
Most recently, however, CNN’s New York offices were evacuated after a bomb threat was phoned in, though the threat was also quickly given the all-clear.
Yet, the ease with which criminals can issue these threats makes the job of law enforcement much more challenging.
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“The problem here is that it’s not just one police department or one city that is responding to these. Each city has their own protocol that they handle bomb threats with,” said retired FBI agent and University of New Haven lecturer Kenneth Gray.
In addition to the dysfunction, however, law enforcement must respond to every threat — no matter how many there are or how likely the threats are to be a hoax.
“You treat it as a non-credible threat and it turns out that one such device is an actual bomb then law enforcement is really left holding the bag in that case so they still have to treat each threat like a real, possible bomb,” he explained.
Montreal police spokesperson Jean-Pierre Brabant confirmed that while nothing was found, the Montreal police responded to Thursday’s threats in this manner as well.
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“Each call was taken very seriously,” Brabant said. “We sent police officers to the site, they searched the premises. We found nothing suspicious. There were no explosives.”
Because of the resources required to investigate each and every one of these threats across multiple jurisdictions, Gray says these events become very difficult for police to handle.
“It becomes a nightmare,” he explained.
“If you go and blow one off and then a device were to go off at that location, then it would be a career-ender for whoever made that decision.”
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He went on to explain that beyond verifying the threats are, indeed, false, the digital nature of these threats makes it extremely difficult to determine who is behind them.
“It’s possible to be somewhat anonymous by jumping from server to server to server. A threat like this may be very difficult to run down who was responsible for it because of that. They can do a lot of attacks, threats like this without any potential for being captured,” he said.
“Or they could be originating in a country where we don’t have good relations in these types of violations and, consequently, be just about untouchable.”
The most significant risk, however, is that the public will stop heeding police warnings as more and more scares turn out to be untrue.
“I think that there is a real possibility of people just becoming immune to it, just blowing it off as just another one of those threats,” said Brabant.
So far, several American jurisdictions have deemed the threats non-credible as have Calgary police. The RCMP have yet to comment on whether the threats are credible, though police have advised Canadians who have received an email threat to contact police and not to pay the ransom.
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—With files from the Canadian Press
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