When Emmi Conley first heard in September about a rash of hoax calls reporting active shooters in schools, she dismissed it. Conley, an extremism researcher who studies groups and people behind public displays of violence, said she found no indication that these calls were connected to fringe online spaces where these pranks often originate.
But as the number of these reports swelled over time, Conley said she began to discern some very strange patterns — including the possibility that the calls may have come from overseas, and perhaps specifically from Africa.
“The scale and the timeline of the events is highly, highly unusual,” she said. “The calls are consistent. They are coordinated. They are grouped state-by-state and district-by-district, and they’re also sustained. So somebody is putting significant effort to keep these going.”
As Conley began digging further, more questions emerged. Elements of these calls were notably different than what she has typically seen in school-based threats. Nobody has taken credit for these calls, even as they stretched over several weeks, and the technological planning and research behind the calls betrayed a level of sophistication not typically seen.
In a statement, the FBI has said it is aware of the incidents, but has “no information to indicate a specific and credible threat.”
The agency said it is working with law enforcement at every level to investigate the cases. But some news reports, including in Minnesota and Louisiana, have cited local authorities who said the calls may be originating in Africa or, specifically, Ethiopia. The FBI would not comment on this detail.
For Conley, particulars around these calls suggest that the people or person behind them are, indeed, overseas.
“Our big questions now are whose attention are they after?” she said. “Is it the public? Law enforcement? Media? Something else? And why they’re after it?”
The story notes that schools in multiple states have been receiving bomb threat calls since March, and in five states there was more than one such call on the same day in April. This is a form of “swatting”, which is a term that refers to calls that falsely report an act of violence in progress or about to occur. Such calls have themselves sometimes resulted in violence as part of the police response. I’ve written about some recent local examples of similar hoax reports, and while Texas is not mentioned in that NPR story, there’s no reason to think whoever is behind this couldn’t target our state as well. As I said before, this is a grim reminder to school districts and police forces that they need to be thinking about this kind of situation and make sure they have plans in place to respond. Unfortunately, it looks like they need to have a plan in place for dealing with false alarms as well.