Over the last year, the United States have been experiencing a surge in hoaxes aimed against an increasing number of schools all over the territory.
Such threats usually invoke school shootings and mobilize emergency services and Special Weapons and Tactics police units – the famous SWAT teams – in order to deal with each one of them just in case.
This phenomenon is certainly not new but has been on the rise since the 2000’s while the last peak of swatting is revealing a change of pattern that is worrying authorities: they are more sophisticated, more wide-ranging, and in some cases, they are originating from overseas.
France is experiencing a very similar trend right now ever since the October 7th Hamas attacks in Israel in terms of a surge in bomb threat hoaxes. It is too early to know the whole story yet as far as potential foreign interference is concerned, but what is certain is that the fear of an importation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in France is palpable, making the atmosphere far more feverish than usual.
Here is what we know so far and how the French defense and security authorities are coping with this unsettling development, the short term impact of which is not only nerve-wracking but tends to exhaust security and police services.
These services are indeed already far stretched with repeated episodes of unprecedented street violence as well as the dire task of protecting the public during high-visibility events such as the Rugby World Cup last month in France or the preparation of the fast-approaching Olympic games this summer.
So what are the stats as far as bomb threat hoaxes in France are concerned?
Even though actual official figures of bomb threat hoaxes are classified and held tightly by the French Interior ministry and even though the system does not process in real time all the data coming from the field up to the authorities in charge, there is no doubt that ever since the start of the Hamas-Israeli conflict the numbers have ramped up significantly with multiple alerts daily all over the French territory.
Daily local newspapers report on a regular basis hoax by the dozen: 6 schools in Toulouse on October 19th, 3 in Lorient on October 25th, 12 in Mayenne in one week in mid-October and so on. Schools are the main targets, but not only.
Official administrative buildings – like city halls – and cultural sites – such as movie theaters and museums (the Versailles castle has been evacuated seven times in one week in mid-October as well), but also transportation – airports and railroad stations in particular – have all been targeted on a regular basis for more than a month now.
Between the October 18th and the 31st for instance, no less than one hundred bomb alerts have been paralyzing dozens of airports all over France forcing evacuations of thousands of people and the cancellation of 130 flights.
A comparison with past events is hard to do given the lack of exhaustive and precise official data, but we know from the French Justice ministry that in the past two years roughly 700 people were convicted for that type of offense.
Also, the current surge has been confirmed as abnormal by the French government. On October 19th, the minister of Education, Gabriel Attal, was reporting on French television a total of 299 bomb threat hoaxes targeted at schools since September with 75 occurring just that very day.
Several arrests have already been made and multiple inquiries are under way. So far, official police statements mostly point at minors sometimes as young as 11 years old, as well as a copycat phenomenon classic in this type of events especially with the extensive media coverage they tend to generate.
But there is also a lingering fear about the impact of the current developments in the Middle East on radicalized young “lone wolves.”
October 7th And The Weaponization of Fear
Traditionally, whenever a conflict involving Israel occurred over the past decades, France has been the theater of terrorist attacks mostly targeted at Jewish institutions. Hence the immediate and systematic enhancement of their protection in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks and the beginning of the war in Gaza.
In this case, a terrorist attack did occur in France mimicking almost to the day the beheading in October 2020 of the history professor Samuel Patty, i.e. another professor teaching French literature, Dominique Bernard, was assassinated in the name of Allah at his school in Arras on October 13th.
In the past weeks, antisemitism has revealed itself in its ugliest way, in particular with the tagging of residences with the David Stars, acts in part attributed to Moldavan illegals apparently paid, according to a November 7th Le Monde article, by Moldavan businessman Anatolii Prizenko and relayed by the pro-Russian propaganda network Doppelgänger.
But schools – the place where history is taught – as well as French institutions in general are here the broader and very symbolic target of radicalized terrorists committed to proceed with the same strategy of terror that have led to the massacres of October 7th. That is where the current situation differs from earlier day with a superimposition of factors: the classic ripple effects of Middle Eastern politics and the more recent waves of Islamic terrorism.
This terrorist attack has triggered the government to raise the level of the anti-terror “Vigipirate” plan to its maximum like it did after the 2015 Bataclan events (the November 13th 2015 attacks caused the death of 130 people and injured more than 350). No less than 7,000 soldiers have been deployed to reinforce the security of major sites at risk, such as airports with a 40% increase of patrols in airports and a 20% reinforcement of railroad security staff.
That is one part of the French government’s strategy to counter the threat itself and the epidemic of hoaxes, which constant repetition plays with everyone’s nerves and exhausts a little more everyday security forces already mobilized by the “Vigipirate” plan. That is the (unfortunately familiar) part of the government toolbox that is meant to protect and reassure the population.
What is different this time is a very firm declaratory policy by the Macron government, by the President himself, but also by the key ministers mostly concerned by the hoaxes, i.e. the ministers of Education (Gabriel Attal), Transportation (Clément Beaune) and Interior (Gérard Darmanin), who have been extremely vocal about the determination of the government to find and punish the perpetrators.
A “Big Brother Is Watching You” message asserting that the latter are always found, and that the punishment can go from 2 to 5 years in jail and a 30 to 45 000 Euros fine depending on if one is only falsely reporting a threat or falsely making it. Indeed, the highest punishment has been extended beyond making the threat to the notion of “premeditated psychological violence” by Paris public prosecutor Laure Beccuau.
This has had an impact on irresponsible “jokers,” it seems, as the number of hoaxes did slow down a bit. Indeed, they tend to be traceable even when using VPNs and punishable under EU law. However, in the current cases many emails are coming from Switzerland, according to the French authorities.
But the radicalization of an increasing number of young people in France – whether through the increased “Salafization” of mosques until now moderate, through Ankara’s tight control of the French-based Turkish Islamist population, through linguistic or cultural associations or even through sport clubs (as stressed in particular in this year’s French Parliament Delegation Intelligence Report recently available to the public) – and a generational rupture are what worries some analysts and policy makers.,
That part of the puzzle deals with the very touchy subjects of immigration, security, urbanization, education, and so on, all subjects which will be undoubtedly at the heart of the next presidential election campaign.
But swatting also touches upon the issue of potential foreign interference on which the government has been vigorously engaged to counteract especially since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The eviction of Russian spies has been one of the most visible measure taken at the time, which have actually led Moscow to use illegal immigrants as agents (such as the Moldovan taggers mentioned earlier).
But a more global strategy is emerging in France like in the United States and in Europe in general to identify these new types of interferences and try to navigate better in the famous “grey zone” of hybrid threats.
The creation in France of a specific administration to deal with foreign digital interferences called VIGINUM (Service de vigilance et protection contre les ingérences numériques étrangères) within the SGDSN (Secrétariat général de la défense et de la sécurité nationale) in 2021 is one example of a new toughness and zero tolerance towards those who want to sabotage the cohesion of France, a country hosting the largest Jewish community (500 000 people) and the largest Muslim community (6 million) in Europe.