Federal authorities investigate a case about false threats of school shootings
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Federal authorities continue to investigate hundreds of swatting hoaxes that appear to be tied to a single person. An NPR analysis indicates that the same man with a foreign accent has been calling schools and public safety agencies, falsely claiming that an active shooter is on a school campus. The calls have prompted police responses, with officers swarming the school, often with guns drawn. Can schemes of this kind pose a threat to national security? NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef reports.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: In early September, an elementary school in Kent, Ohio, received a call. A man was threatening to go to the school with a rifle. One parent called city dispatch. She'd heard about the threat while on the phone with her child's case manager.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: But while I was on the phone, I hear on the loudspeaker, lockdown. This is not a drill. Everybody lockdown. And then the case manager hung up the phone. And I don't know what to do.
UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: OK. We've got officers going to check on them.
UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: Is it a shooter?
YOUSEF: It wasn't a shooter. It was a hoax. A few days later, there was a marked increase in these kinds of calls across the nation. Between mid-September and late October, NPR found nearly 200 schools in 28 states were targeted. NPR couldn't verify whether this Ohio call was part of that scheme. But call after call, these swatting hoaxes generate the same fear and panic. NPR has learned that this is not the first time this apparent overseas caller may have targeted U.S. schools. In an earlier spree in the springtime, he falsely claimed bombs were in schools. The caller uses internet-based phone numbers tied to a service called TextNow. And the calls are either made from or routed through Ethiopia. A month ago, TextNow blocked Ethiopia from its service. Since then, the company says, it has further restricted its service to North America. Still, the calls have continued. And they've extended into additional states, including Oregon, Alaska and Maine.
TOM O'CONNOR: It's cheap. It's very effective. And there is - you know, it's very difficult to find out who's doing it.
YOUSEF: Tom O'Connor spent more than 20 years on the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington, D.C. He's retired from the agency now. He says the FBI's involvement in this investigation is, perhaps, the only way that local officials will ever get to the bottom of this.
O'CONNOR: A local agency working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task force has the ability to reach to that country and have a liaison already in place set to work with that nation's law enforcement agency.
YOUSEF: The FBI declined to comment on the status of its investigation. But Jason Blazakis believes this phenomenon potentially merits much more than a federal criminal inquiry. Blazakis worked for two decades in the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism. He says the State Department should be aware of this scheme and possibly involved in putting an end to it.
JASON BLAZAKIS: I think, diplomatically, if we have information that this individual truly is based in Ethiopia, we need to take that to the Ethiopians and ask them to actually pursue action on their side to shut this person down.
YOUSEF: After all, the telecom company that manages IP addresses behind these calls is owned by the Ethiopian government, which is known to heavily surveil communications on the network. Blazakis also says this could fall to authorities who handle foreign terrorism, namely the Department of Homeland Security. DHS did not respond to NPR's questions. But Blazakis says the scheme has most of the ingredients that he would consider to be foreign terrorism. It can result in violence. It creates fear. And it targets civilians. It's just missing one final component. Is there a political motivation behind these calls?
BLAZAKIS: Is this person somebody who is jaded, who did not receive a visa from the United States? Does it relate to the United States-Ethiopian tensions because of the conflict in the Tigray region? Or is it a third party trying to meddle in the U.S. system?
YOUSEF: Lauren Krapf of the Anti-Defamation League says even if this can't be established, this wave has illustrated that swatting can be more than just a nuisance to local law enforcement. That it could, in fact, become a national security concern.
LAUREN KRAPF: The idea that swatting can be weaponized and would continue to be used in different ways, like threatening our elections, like threatening local and national events, like potentially calling in SWAT to major places of transit.
YOUSEF: At the very least, Krapf says, perhaps this latest wave of calls points more clearly to a need for federal monitoring of swatting threats and a more robust federal response.
Odette Yousef, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.