Thousands of fake bomb threats have disturbed the everyday lives of North Macedonia’s citizens since last October, with schools being the main targets.
The threats have been made on a daily basis for months, forcing the evacuation of schools and other institutions including government offices, malls and residential buildings. In total, over 720 facilities have been affected by false alarms.
The effects of these threats are far-reaching, causing disruptions to the educational process, psychological distress for students and economic costs to the government.
PM Dimitar Kovacevski has said he believes the threats are linked to the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine, and represent a form of hybrid warfare.
They are so frequent that the government decided to enhance its cyber security to mitigate their impact. However, the authorities have acknowledged that the senders of the bomb hoaxes are difficult to identify.
On February 21 alone, more than 30 locations were evacuated in Skopje. The threats targeted a wide range of locations, including the presidential palace for the first time, public institutions, TV stations, courts, shopping malls, residential buildings, museums and hotels.
The Djevahir high-rise complex, which is a landmark in Skopje, and considered one of the most beautiful and iconic buildings in the city, has also been the target of threats several times.
“We know that the bombs threats are fake, but of course we don't feel comfortable when they evacuate us. It creates fear and anxiety,” one resident told bne IntelliNews.
Schools are the main target
With the threats primarily targeting schools, not only has the campaign disrupted children’s education, it is also having a serious psychological impact on students.
“What if a threat is a real,” Gorazd, an 11-year-old primary school student, asked his parents, they related to bne IntelliNews.
At another elementary school, teachers told the younger students that the frequent evacuations are just drills, in order not to create panic.
“We have been living with this situation for months. The education process has been totally disrupted because many classes have been missed,” a parent said.
“I feel sorry for these generations of children. First COVID-19, now bomb threats! Nothing seems normal,” she added.
The effects of false bomb threats on students extend beyond their mental health. The incidents have resulted in missed classes and loss of valuable learning time. The economic cost of these disruptions is significant too, with the government spending millions of denars to increase security measures and investigate the threats.
New security measures
As parents get increasingly anxious about the situation, the government adopted a set of high-priority measures on March 3 aimed at improving the security of information systems in public sector institutions.
Kovacevski, Minister of Internal Affairs Oliver Spasovski, Minister of Education Jeton Shaqiri and the director of the Public Security Bureau Saso Tasevski held a coordination meeting to discuss security measures to be taken by institutions dealing with hybrid threats.
During the meeting, new guidelines for measures and protocols were presented such as providing regular police patrols to secure schools.
According to the new security protocols, when there are reports of planted explosive devices, the public will only be informed if the threat is real.
The education ministry recommended online classes on days when there are bomb threats.
"In response to the false bomb threats, the Ministry of Education and Culture has recommended that, in cases when there are bomb threats in schools and after the evacuation of teachers and students, they should head home where they would join online classes," the ministry told bne IntelliNews.
This recommendation aims to ensure teaching continues without interruption. The ministry believes that all stakeholders in the educational process will accept and act on this recommendation, saying it is in the best interests of the students.
“Most of the students and teachers have experience with online teaching that was carried out in the previous school years, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. During that period, the schools provided IT equipment which is still available and can be used now by students for online classes,” the education ministry said.
School directors have informed the ministry that most schools have already compensated for the lost classes.
However, some civil initiatives and high school students are still demanding better solutions from the authorities.
The civil initiative "We must have textbooks and teaching” last week gave the Ministry of Education a deadline of 15 days to solve the security situation in schools; if that demand is not met they will go out to protest.
High school students are the most affected, feeling damaged and losing confidence in the system. The Organisation for Dialogue and Affirmation of High School Students said the current cohort of high school students has not had a complete year of uninterrupted teaching, and this will have a direct impact on their high school graduation outcomes.
IP addresses from Iran, Russia
Spasovski said that the latest emails with threats lead to IP addresses from Iran and Russia, as well as VPN addresses whose providers are also from these countries.
“This is an intense hybrid attack that has been happening since October 19, until today, on the territory of the entire country, first in secondary and then in elementary schools,” Spasovski told a TV24 show, according to a ministry statement.
According to him, the payments for VPN services are made with cryptocurrencies, making it even harder to detect the perpetrators.
According to Spasovski, the ministry is in constant cooperation with Interpol and Europol to address the issue of false bomb reports. He stated that this is a hybrid war that is happening not only in North Macedonia but all over the world. However, he claimed that the situation is not out of control.
The ministry is working intensively to find the perpetrators, and several culprits have already been found. "I expect that in the coming period we will have concrete and efficient results in this regard," minister said.
Spasovski reiterated his call to all stakeholders involved in the educational process to avoid any disruptions and prevent causing unnecessary panic among students, teachers and the general public.
Other countries in the region including Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia have faced similar false bomb threats.