Evidence is mounting that schools around the world are an increasingly attractive target for terror groups: in April 2014, 276 female school children in Nigeria were abducted by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram; 132 school children were killed by Pakistani Taliban gunmen in Peshawar in December; and just last month Al-Shabaab militants killed 147 people at a college in Kenya. Such attacks have accelerated sharply since 2004, notes a December report by researchers at the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) center at the University of Maryland. Entitled Terrorist Attacks on Educational Institutions, the report’s grim summary is that between 1970 and 2013, “more than 3,400 terrorist attacks targeting educational institutions took place in 110 countries,” and are now at their highest levels in more than 40 years. (The study did not include non-ideologically motivated school attacks such as those in Columbine, Colorado, or Newtown, Connecticut.)
While unstable nations like Pakistan and Nigeria accounted for the vast majority of the recent attacks, no country’s school systems, including those in the US, are immune from the threat. (In fact the US had the dubious distinction of being home to 88% of all worldwide school attacks in 1970/71 — none of them fatal — carried out by opponents of the Vietnam War, radical students and others on both sides of school desegregation efforts during the civil-rights movement.) Recent rumors that the terror group ISIS had established training camps across the US border in Mexico appear to have been unfounded, but more serious was the thwarted May 3 attack against a gathering of cartoonists depicting the prophet Mohammed, which occurred at a Garland Independent School District special-event facility near Dallas and injured a district security officer. ISIS immediately claimed responsibility, but whether it coordinated or merely inspired the attack is beside the point. Far more relevant is the fact that planned attacks by lone-wolf actors produce ‘signals’ that can be detected. With the right combination of resources to ferret out the few early indications and warnings that do exist, the security community can ‘connect the dots’ and determine if a threat is credible. At Haystax, we have spent more than a decade providing our users with a combination of risk analytics, incident reporting, digital media monitoring and other technologies to finds threat signals in the noise and ensure these are immediately shared with the stakeholders who can put those signals into their proper context and make sense of them. We have also been working hard on new ways of identifying indicators of behavioral threats under our Insider Threat program. School safety stakeholders have an especially unique mission in providing a safe and nurturing environment where kids can learn and develop, which is why our School Safety Center features many of the same real-time threat monitoring, modeling and analytic capabilities we developed for the broader public safety community. Coming in Part II of this post: why schools need to incorporate terror scenarios into their all-hazards planning processes.