Amid Bomb Threats, Schools Seek Support and Resources
February is Black History month in Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The annual observance honors the triumphs and struggles of Black individuals that helped shape the nations they live in.
In 2022, it also became a month where U.S. historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) received and responded to an unprecedented number of bomb threats. More than 30 of the 101 HBCUs in the United States together received 49 bomb threats in January and February 2022, according to Sean Haglund, associate director of the Office for Bombing Prevention (OBP) at the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
That troubling trend continued throughout the year, with some universities—including Howard University in Washington, D.C.—responding to as many as eight bomb threats. While no explosives were found while responding to any of those incidents, the threats themselves can cause harm and trauma for those who experience them.
In an open letter on 26 August 2022, Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick wrote about the emotional toll of evacuating students from their residence halls for the second time in 48 hours in response to a bomb threat.
“People who love and care about them, parents, university employees, alumni, and so many others, have had to wrestle with anxiety about the veracity of another terroristic act,” Frederick explained. “It was difficult for me to witness in person students sitting in Banneker Park and heading to trailers on Sherman Avenue and crossing Georgia Avenue on their way to Blackburn Center in their pajamas and sleepwear. This is terrorism, and it must stop.”
The threats require a response from institutions and security practitioners who receive them—an aspect that OBP and other U.S. government officials have been working to provide resources, support, and best practices on as bomb threats continue to be a problem.
“Generally, we’ve seen an increase in bomb threats targeting both universities, community colleges, technical schools, and elementary schools,” Haglund says in a November 2022 interview with Security Management. “What that’s resulted in are just some pretty staggering numbers—a total of 725 bomb threats have been directed towards those facilities since January of 2022.”
Bombings are not a new terrorist tactic. There is a long history of Black institutions being targeted by using explosives (see a timeline of notable attacks here), as well as government buildings like the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.
In 2021, the U.S. Bomb Data Center—run by the U.S. Department of Justice and a partner of the OBP—tracked bomb threats nationwide. It reported 1,876 bomb threats, and 4,935 suspicious or unattended packages in 381 bombing related incidents during the year. This marked a 56 percent increase in explosive incidents from 2015, Haglund says.
As for the individuals or groups behind these incidents? The 2020 U.S. Department of Homeland Security Threat Assessment looked at lone offenders and small terrorism cells who might be ideologically motivated to carry out these types of attacks; it identified groups with domestic violent extremism leanings that had political or social motivations to conduct a bombing or make a threat.
For instance, authorities are still looking for the individual who placed pipe bombs near the Republican National Committee Headquarters and the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., on the night before the 6 January 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Some individuals behind the recent uptick in explosive incidents and threats might be inspired by overseas terrorist groups and adopt their tactics for attacks in the United States, Haglund says. The al Qaeda-linked terrorist group al-Shabab has recently carried out truck bombings in Somalia that killed at least 120 people.
“What this boils down to is—regardless of ideology or motivation—what we do see is the routine use of simple tactics,” he adds. “That could include vehicle ramming, small arms, edged weapons, and basic improvised explosive devices (IEDs).”
OBP is most concerned about the potential use of a high consequence IED attack. Haglund and his team are also battling the challenge that information on how to build a bomb is highly available online.
“At the same time, the explosive precursor chemicals to build those bombs are oftentimes utilizing common household items—pool cleaners, hair dyes, things of that nature—that are readily available,” he explains. A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study in 2017 found that approximately 250,000 U.S. retail locations sold explosive precursor chemicals.
The number of U.S. retail locations that sold explosive precursor chemicals, according to a recent government study.
“Some other areas we’re concerned about are the use of chemical, biological, or radiological enhancements in conjunction with an improvised explosive device,” Haglund says. “We’ve seen more and more advanced concealment techniques in terms of 3D printing and additive manufacturing that could pose threats to aviation security, for instance.”
For example, the U.S. Nuclear Commission reported 4,512 nuclear material events—including instances of lost or stolen radioactive materials—between 2011 and 2020, according to a 2022 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
Support for Targeted Institutions
While no explosives have been recovered so far in response to the 2022 threats against HBCUs, Haglund stresses that there are still real consequences to responding to these attacks.
The ramifications include operational impacts from evacuating or sheltering in place, financial impacts from shutdowns or declining enrollment for repeatedly targeted institutions, and “certainly a psychological impact to the faculty and the students on having these bomb threats conveyed against their institutions and the fear that is associated with that,” Haglund says.
The fear and trauma caused by these bomb threats might be the true goal of the perpetrators, explains Lisa Cylar Barrett, director of policy at the Legal Defense Fund (LDF).
“This is both about devastating or removing those centers and communities. It’s also about intimidation and instilling fear in communities,” she says. “That is the goal—to dampen the will and resilience of Black people.”
While law enforcement continues to work to identify the perpetrators of the 2022 threats, OBP and its partners at CISA have taken action to support HBCUs responding to bomb threats. CISA called an immediate meeting of its regional field forces in January 2022 to initiate direct contact with HBCUs and provide them with resources to mitigate the consequences of bomb threats, Haglund says.
By the beginning of March 2022, CISA protective security advisors—members of the agency’s field force—had engaged with all 101 HBCUs; more than half of the HBCUs responded that they wanted additional resources to aid their response to these threats.
These resources included providing 27 courses for 1,200 school staff, administrators, students, and campus law enforcement officers. More than 23,000 people have also watched OBP’s informational videos that range from how to conduct a bomb search to how to survive a bombing—a 54 percent increase in views, Haglund says.
Additionally, OBP held a bomb threat forum in Atlanta, Georgia, with the Atlanta University Center Consortium (AUCC)—the largest and oldest consortium of HBCUs in the United States. Representatives from seven institutions in the Atlanta area attended the forum in-person, while representatives from 30 other institutions attended virtually.
“We needed to make sure that we secure all of our campuses and deal with the stress and the anxiety that these kinds of things raise in our communities,” said AUCC Executive Director Michael Hodge in a press release on the forum. “These things are historical in Black communities, and it is important we deal with them head-on.”
Alongside this work, OBP also created bomb threat management plan templates for universities, a mass bomb threat awareness job aid card, and a tabletop exercise package for bomb threat response. All of these resources are available online, for free, for security practitioners and others to utilize.
“Universities, institutions of higher education could run through these types of plans on their own and start to gauge where their capabilities were strong and maybe where they needed additional resources,” Haglund adds.
One aspect of bomb threat training that continues to be a focal point is how to assess whether a threat is credible. All threats need to be taken seriously, Haglund says, but various aspects of OBP training cover how organizations can determine how credible a bomb threat—made via phone, social media, or mail—is.
“Part of that assessment looks at several different factors, assessing the realism of the threat,” he explains. “How specific is it? Was it vague or indirect? Or was it very specific and something that could actually be actionable?”
For instance, if a bomb threat indicates a specific place, time, and additional details about the attack method or target, the institution can use a threat assessment plan to assess that the threat might be more credible.
“Based on that threat assessment, school security or campus law enforcement can then decide whether an evacuation or shelter in place is warranted—or perhaps just a search of the immediate location and a clearing to return as possible back to normal operations,” Haglund says.
Preparing for 2023
As students, faculty, and staff head back to campuses in January 2023, bomb threats may be top of mind due to the high number that institutions received the previous year. Below are some measures security practitioners can take to be prepared to respond.
Education. Haglund says it’s likely that many institutions will see an uptick in reported suspicious or unattended items on campus—such as backpacks.
He recommends making use of the HOT RAIN card—an OBP reference guide that provides info on how to look at an object and make an initial assessment of its threat potential. When someone comes across an unattended item, he or she should assess if the object is Hidden, Obviously Suspicious, or not Typical (the HOT portion of the acronym). If the answer to those questions is yes, the individual can then seek to Recognize the indicators of a suspected explosive device, Avoid the area, Isolate the suspect item, and Notify appropriate emergency services to respond (the RAIN portion of the guide).
Retailers. To improve their ability to aid retailers who might sell products that could be used to build bombs, the OBP and FBI have worked together to create the Bomb-Making Materials Awareness Program and Operation Flashpoint.
These programs are voluntary and provide information to retailers on how to identify suspicious purchasing patterns, behaviors, and reporting mechanisms when noticing something amiss. Through CISA and FBI regional field office staff, OBP has been able to make direct contact with more than 9,000 retailers to raise awareness about the threat and its programs, with plans to continue that effort in 2023, Haglund says.
All organizations. Haglund suggests that security practitioners across various sectors connect with their CISA protective security advisor and review the resources that OBP has available—including virtual instructor-led training courses through its partnership with the West Virginia National Guard.
“In that type of delivery environment, you have interaction with the instructor, you have interaction with your fellow classmates, and that gives you an opportunity to dig into a little bit more complicated course material,” he adds.
OBP has also stood up mobile training teams that will go to practitioners’ institutions, review their bomb threat management plan, or help them create a plan. The training team will then work with the institution to conduct a tabletop exercise and test the plan to identify any potential gaps in response.
A final measure Haglund recommends is utilizing the online information sharing platform Technical Resource for Incident Prevention (TRIP) Wire. It provides threat information on statistical trends, insights on IEDs, and threats across the United States for the public.
For more on responding to bomb threats, see 13 Steps Organizations Can Take to Prepare for a Bomb Threat, as well as the Crisis Management volume of the ASIS Protection of Assets manuals. Interested in reaching out to OBP for additional resources? Email [email protected] for training information, programs, or to connect with your CISA protective security advisor.