Russia suffers wave of fake bomb scares
Resources of the security services tested by ‘telephone terrorism’
Olga Terebova was terrified when her seven-year-old daughter called in tears last Friday morning to say a bomb had been planted at her school in Moscow and that she was being evacuated with her class mates. The scare – like many others that have disrupted work at public buildings across Russia in the past month – turned out to be a hoax, but not before teachers had herded more than 1,000 pupils to safety in local parks, book stores and cafes.
A wave of fake bomb warnings that began in the Siberian city of Omsk in mid- September has swept across Russia over the past five weeks, testing the resources of the security services and the resilience of ordinary citizens to the omnipresent terror threat.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been rushed out of schools, shopping malls, restaurants and railway stations in Russian cities in response to anonymous calls claiming that buildings have been mined. So far no organisation has claimed responsibility for the campaign.
The Kremlin has coined the term “telephone terrorism” to describe the new security scourge that, according to official estimates, has already caused 300 million roubles (¤4.4 million) worth of economic damage.
Russia’s Federal Security Services – the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB – is overseeing an investigation, but admits that hunting down the hoaxers is proving difficult.
Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the FSB, told reporters in Moscow last week that four Russian citizens – all living abroad – are suspected of organising the false alarms, possibly with the help of accomplices on the ground. Telephone terrorists had so far been able to conceal their whereabouts by relying on Internet Protocol (IP) telephone technology that can be used to scramble the location of callers, he said.
Russian officials have generally avoided commenting in public about the bomb scares that now occur on an almost daily basis, raising questions about the authorities’ ability to root out the problem.
In Moscow alone emergency services fielded more than 100 anonymous calls last Friday warning that bombs were about to explode at schools, railway stations and other locations. More than 160,000 people were evacuated during the day from public buildings in the capital, Interfax reported.
For Terebova, a part-time photographer and mother of two, the constant low-level threat is draining. “I could bear it more easily if it wasn’t for the children,” she says. “It’s impossible to run quickly to safety if you have kids and pushchairs with you.”
Russian state media has speculated that the false alarms could be the work of Ukrainian cyber criminals, Islamist militants or even Russian Christian Orthodox radicals. Some dismiss the danger, saying that relatively harmless computer geeks with a sick sense of humour are more likely to be the perpetrators.
But Alexander Golts, an independent Russian military observer, believes that, whoever they are, the telephone terrorists must be taken extremely seriously. “You need technical and organisational skills, clear goals and, most probably, a substantial amount of cash” to plot and manage such a sustained and widespread campaign, he said.
Russian city dwellers have reason to fear terror threats. On April 15th people were killed in St Petersburg after a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device in the metro. Islamic State has threatened to avenge the Kremlin’s military campaign by wreaking violent havoc on the Russian mainland.
Yet for the most part Muscovites have responded with stoic patience to the repeated evacuation of public buildings in the capital over the past few weeks. Golts sees the absence of public panic as cause for alarm. The goal of the telephone terrorists could be to get people to drop their guard to the deadly danger of bomb attacks, he says. “They repeat the threat again and again and then when the axe finally falls nobody is paying attention.”
In Moscow emergency services fielded more than 100 anonymous calls last Friday warning that bombs were about to explode