Should we be worried? At this time the experts conclude that the series of incidents referencing threats against schools, Jewish facilities and businesses likely do not represent a credible terrorist threat for two reasons:
- terrorists’ rarely provide operational insight into their planning, and
- the fact that nearly all hoaxes in the United States are conducted by criminal actors or those instigating a nuisance prank.
Due to the common occurrence of bomb threats across the country over the last few years, the experts judge malicious terrorism hoaxes such as bogus emails and phoned-in threats, including robo-calls, will almost certainly continue, diverting resources as they create disturbances and send false alarms. However, don’t become blasé. Someone might take advantage of the hoaxes to accomplish a real attack.
What should we be doing? Consider these incidents to be a teaching moment. How would your organization handle such threats.
- Know what you should do. Have a bomb threat plan before an incident happens. For starters, check out DHS’ Bomb Threat Guidance and Introduction to Bomb Threat Management. Add JCRC-NY’s post, Manhattan bomb threat: lessons learned to your reading list. Now is a good time to review, or to think through your own plans. Our own Emergency Planning: Disaster and Crisis Response Systems for Jewish Organizations has a longer chapter discussing the issue.
- Train your phone answerers. Everyone answering the phone (including those who might answer) should be taught how to handle a phone threat with this checklist. Have copies of the bomb threat checklist posted nearby.
- You have to communicate.
- First things first. Call 911. Bring in the cavalry…ASAP. Whether you think the incident is real or a hoax, contact the experts and defer to them. Have a system (with primary and backup callers) that ensures that someone calls 911 immediately. Remember, don’t use a cell phone or walkie-talkie in the area of a suspicious package … you might set it off. Get to your landline.
- Get the word out. Even if your people know what to do (i.e., you’ve conducted bomb scare drills) you have to let them know that they have to do it. Does your building have a public address system? Do you have cell phone numbers for all of your staff so that you can text them with updates? Can you modify your fire alarm system so that it sounds a distinctive signal for a bomb scare?
- Let your constituencies know what’s happening. Bomb scares create angst and the possibility of physical danger, but there is the potential for risk to your reputation. No one wants a parent to learn about an incident from the media. Have pre-written messages ready for distribution directly to your constituencies (e.g., by text) stressing the steps you’ve taken and that everyone is safe. Have a point of assembly where worried parents can go for additional information from your best staffers. Work with the police to direct people to the appropriate areas. Do not post specifics on social media. Click here for resources on crisis communication.
- Decisions, decisions. Have someone in charge (and a backup). OK, you receive a threat, now what? Certainly, dial 911, but should you evacuate or not (might someone use a bomb threat in order to trigger an evacuation setting up an active shooter or vehicle ramming?)? In reality there is no perfect answer to this question. Someone has to give the order and there will be no time to waste.
- Know where to go. If you decide to evacuate out of an abundance of caution you probably don’t want to stand in the street, especially if the weather is bad. Do you have an agreement with a neighboring institution that allows you to bring people into their facility. By doing so you can keep your people warm and dry and out of harms way.
- Keep unused parts of your building locked. It’s good practice to have your staff check your facilities daily, looking for something that “Just Doesn’t Look Right”. As they move through the rooms they should lock the doors. Closets and other storage areas should be kept locked. If you develop such procedures and do receive a bomb threat, the bomb sweep of your building can be accomplished faster.
- Consult your leadership about security plans. There will always be Monday morning quarterbacks, but a review of your plans at the Board level should empower those making difficult decisions under duress. As they say, “once is not enough.” Revisit security planning and procedures on a regular basis.
How can we know if the threat is real? The intelligence firm, Stratfor, recently published an article: How to distinguish a bomb threat from a bomb warning. The experts suggest some other possible indicators of a hoax:
- Most genuine bombers wouldn’t specify the exact timing and target of an attack (since providing that information would jeopardize the success of an event);
- Most genuine bombers wouldn’t use threats with complex scenarios involving chemical weapons or other advanced capabilities, or cite geographically dispersed targets; and
- Most genuine bombers wouldn’t use threats involving large numbers of operatives.
Remember, there are no guarantees in security. You will have to weigh the options and make the best decisions possible. If you’ve thought about the options and have made decisions ahead of time, the odds of making the right decision increase dramatically.
The FBI arrested James Gonzalo Medina (aka James Muhammad) on April 29, 2016 for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against persons or property within the United States. Click here for the “Lessons Learned”.
According to a complaint filed with the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida at a hearing on May 2, 2016, Medina was arrested after he attempted to place what he believed to be an improvised explosive device (IED) at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center (a large Conservative synagogue) in Aventura, Florida. The device Medina attempted to place and remotely detonate was never operable due to FBI intervention.
Medina, according to the complaint, had stated his desire to conduct an attack, saying it was to “strike back to the Jews” because “It’s a war man and it’s like it’s time to strike back here in America.”
On March 27, 2016, Medina and two associates allegedly discussed an interest in conducting an attack on a synagogue. One of the associates subsequently relayed Medina’s intentions to die in a shooting at a synagogue in Aventura to the FBI. According to the complaint, on or about April 1, 2016, Medina confirmed his desire to conduct a weapons attack using AK-47 rifles and that, if he were to conduct an attack, he would want to do it at a synagogue. Medina further explained his desire to become a martyr in the attack. When Medina was told that there was a Jewish holiday in a few weeks, Medina responded by saying that it would be a good time to attack. He also allegedly discussed hiding a bomb in the bathroom.
The complaint alleged that Medina created a flyer that contained a photo of the ISIS flag and the words “ISIS in America;” and that he made three videos, saying, “I am a Muslim and I don’t like what is going on in this world…Aventura, watch your back. ISIS is in the house;” “Today is gonna be a day where Muslims attack America. I’m going to set a bomb in Aventura;” and one saying goodbye to his family.
On the day of his arrest, Medina allegedly took possession of what he believed to be an explosive device in a parking lot in Hallandale Beach, FL. He did not know that it was inert and of no danger to the public. He was arrested upon his arrival at the synagogue. Continue Reading
Last week’s attack and sorting through the information overload is daunting. We regularly turn to a few knowledgeable sources to help to guide us when we’re perplexed. Here are a few examples:
Founded in 1996, the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) is one of the leading academic institutes for counter-terrorism in the world, facilitating international cooperation in the global struggle against terrorism. It is based at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya and includes some of the top experts in terrorism, counter-terrorism, homeland security, threat vulnerability, risk assessment, intelligence analysis, national security and defense policy. See their The Brussels Attacks – What do we know? & Insights from ICT Experts.
- The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism—better known as START—is a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence headquartered at the University of Maryland comprised of an international network of scholars committed to the scientific study of the causes and human consequences of terrorism in the United States and around the world. See their Terrorism in Belgium and Western Europe; Attacks against Transportation Targets; Coordinated Terrorist Attacks.
- The U.S. State Department issued a Travel Alert for Europe cautioning that terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants, and transportation. The State Department also maintains a Worldwide Caution which highlights that all European countries remain vulnerable to attacks from transnational terrorist organizations.
- Stratfor is a geopolitical intelligence firm that provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. One of their recent analyses observes, “The Brussels blasts are a striking reminder of the difficulty of preventing attacks against soft targets. Unlike hard targets, which tend to require attackers to use large teams of operatives with elaborate attack plans or large explosive devices to breach defenses, soft targets offer militant planners an advantage in that they can frequently be attacked by a single operative or small team using a simple attack plan. In addition, attacks against transportation-related targets such as metro stations and airports allow attackers to kill large groups of people and attract significant media attention.” Alongside transportation hubs, hotels and restaurants, institutions — such as houses of worship and schools — are classic soft targets. See Brussels Blasts: The Struggle to Secure Soft Targets.
- Scott Atran is an anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, Oxford University, John Jay College and the University of Michigan and author of Talking to the Enemy and In Gods We Trust. His research specialty is terrorists: how they are recruited, how they think, why are they so effective. He and his team are quite busy these days: he’s embedded with the Peshmerga outside of Mosul interviewing captured (and soon to be executed) ISIL fighters; his team is running experiments in neighborhoods like Molenbeek and around the Bataclan, and tracing out the networks of the friends, family and disciples of the Paris and Brussels terrorists. His, often raw, Facebook posts from the battlefield carry a surrealistic quality. He recently addressed the UN Security Council on The Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace. We do not necessarily agree with every one of his conclusions, but he is consistently thoughtful and incisive.
Bomb threats are nothing new. Paris and Brussels have educated more Americans that terrorist attacks are a scary possibility, but the Jewish community has known that for a long time.
Dealing with a bomb threat is never easy, but in today’s environment, planning and cool heads are critical. Click here for a tool for bomb threat planning.
After the NYPD issued an all-clear, we spoke with Aaron Strum, Executive Director of The Jewish Center about his crazy day and “lessons learned”. This is what we learned:
- Planning is where its at. Even the best organizations can make mistakes if they’re “just winging it”. If you receive a communication (phone, mail, email) what should you do first: evacuate or lockdown? Who’s going to call the police? Do you know what to tell them? Making those decisions during planning sessions is preferable to making them under pressure.
- Get everyone on the same page. Often Jewish institutions house multiple organizations under the same roof. Every organization in the building should have the same plan, and there should be a single leader calling the shots. Everyone in the building should have the same training and participate in common exercises and drills.
- Know who’s in charge…and who’s next. Ok, the call comes in, what’s the next step? Should you evacuate or shelter-in-place? There has to be a clear delineation of command. At the same time, there have to be backups, with full authority to make decisions, in place.
We recently reviewed the emergency plans for a school that included the instruction, “If a threat is received, find Mr. Levine …” What if Mr. Levine is out of the building? The plan was silent. Should anyone call 911? The plan was silent. Everything stopped until Mr. Levine was found. Plans must be flexible and adaptable, rather than reliant on a single person.
- When the cavalry comes over the hill, they’re in charge. OK, you have your plan and you like it. One element of your plan is to designate someone to be at the door to meet the first responders. Brief them about the details, but you’re probably going to have to repeat yourself when the next wave of police come (The UWS event had the precinct, Emergency Service Unit, Strategic Response Group and the Bomb Squad respond). Someone may overrule your plan. Assume that they know what they’re talking about.
- You must be able to communicate.
- Internally. That means PA systems, intercoms, walkie-talkies, texts, runners, whatever. Everyone in the building has to know what is happening so that they can execute their role in your plan.
- Externally. Everyone will want to know what’s going on and you will be deluged by phone calls, texts, emails. Plan on that. Quick tips:
- Forward your calls. Parents want to know that their kids are safe. Have the capacity to forward your calls from the main number to a cell phone or an alternate landline.
- Mass notification system, phone trees, email groups or mass texting. There are many ways to do it, but people want to know something. There are services and software that can efficiently handle the problem using multiple channels (simultaneous email, landline and cell phone calls/texts) or you can set up your own system (e.g., free services like Google Hangouts or search for “group texting”). Bottom line: set something up ahead of time, draft sample messages and be ready.
- Media nudnikim. Somehow, enterprising reporters will find you. Remember, your first responsibility is to your constituents, not the media. You don’t have to talk to them, at least until you have time to breathe. (See our Disaster and Crisis Response Systems for Jewish Organizations, p. 171 ff)
- Determine places of assembly. So, you’re evacuating and it’s 10° outside. Where should you go with your dozens or hundreds of students? Another school, a public place? In this case there was a synagogue building close by (which went into lockdown, at the advice of the NYPD), but don’t wing it. Find the best place and have a discussion with them ahead of time. Often, you can develop a mutual assistance agreement (See our Disaster and Crisis Response Systems for Jewish Organizations, p. 111 ff). Also remember that you need dismissal/parental pickup plans that will work in the place of assembly.
- Know your building. Before issuing an “all-clear” someone will have to search every place in your building that a bomb can be hidden.
- Lock unused spaces. As a matter of course, keep unused spaces in your building and closets, elevator rooms, mechanical rooms, etc., locked. If spaces need not be searched the search will go quicker.
- List hidden spaces. Every building has nooks and crannies hidden to most people, even to those using the building every day. Make a list of those places, floor-by-floor. When the search for a device is underway, you don’t want them to miss anything.
- Do a post-incident postmortem. Take the time to have the key players sit down to decide what went right and what went wrong. Then modify your plans accordingly.
I asked my colleague, “Do you know your Protective Security Advisor (PSA)?” He replied, “What?”
DHS employs PSA’s in all 50 states and many states have multiple regions. Our experience here in NY is that our PSA’s are a wonderful resource. They are hard-working, knowledgeable and professional.
- Security surveys. Subject to time constraints you can ask your PSA to conduct security surveys and assessments of your facilities. We’ve joined our PSA’s during some of these sessions and their suggestions are both sound and pragmatic.
- Training. PSA’s have access to a wide variety of training options, e.g. active shooters, suspicious packages, severe weather. Even if you don’t know your exact need, talk to them. They can open up a variety of resources for you.
- Special events planning. Let them know if you are planning a high profile event. They can advise you on security and logistical issues.
- Outreach. Get on their radar. They will invite you to various trainings and events.
Click here for more information on Protective Security Advisors. To contact your local PSA, please contact PSCDOperations@hq.dhs.gov. To contact NY PSA’s or if you have questions or need other assistance please complete the form below.