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New York Investigates Similar School Threat As A Hoax


Now, as we heard, the reaction in New York City to the threat was very different. Here's what the city's Police Commissioner Bill Bratton had to say.


BILL BRATTON: The email that was received in New York City, which is similar and almost exactly the same as received in other locales, specifically Los Angeles, we do not see that as a credible terrorist threat.

SHAPIRO: NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is in New York. And Dina, Commissioner Bratton says the New York and Los Angeles emails were similar. Can you tell us more about what was in those emails?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, law enforcement sources familiar with the emails tell NPR that the author claimed to be a violent jihadist and wrote, among other things, that he or she had 32 accomplices that were ready to attack schools with bombs, nerve gas and rifles. The sheer number of people the email mentioned as being part of this plot and the generic details of the attack were red flags for New York intelligence officials.

SHAPIRO: So the emails just generally outlined this plot that the person said they were planning to carry out?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, and it was that generic quality of the email that was a tipoff for New York officials. The mention of nerve gas was a red flag for them, too. If you watch the Showtime series "Homeland," a nerve gas attack has been one of its recent storylines. And the emails apparently also referred to Allah, but in a way that suggested the writer wasn't really Muslim. Allah was spelled with a lowercase A.

So bringing all these things together, the NYPD determined pretty quickly that this must be some kind of hoax. In fact, they're investigating it as a hoax now because it's illegal to threaten schools in this way.

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, the Los Angeles school district which received a very similar email shut down close to 1,000 schools. Why was the reaction so dramatically different?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think we can't take this out of the context of what just happened in San Bernardino. The terrorist attack there is still under investigation, and there are a lot of unanswered questions swirling around that plot. I mean, 14 people died - were killed. Twenty-two were injured. And San Bernardino is right next to Los Angeles, so you could understand why everyone might be a little on edge.

SHAPIRO: When officials in Los Angeles announced the school closure, they said the threat came from overseas, which is one of the things they found so worrisome. Tell us more about that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right. Well, the emails were traced to an IP address in Frankfurt, Germany, and that made email seem more suspect than a local one might have been. Threats are made against schools all the time, particularly during midterms and finals. There are kids who don't want to take a test, and they think this sort of threat could get them out of it, so an email from Germany suggests that that isn't the motivation in this case.

And what also makes LA different from New York is that there are different protocols for closing schools there. The Los Angeles Unified School District is different from the county school district. And the Los Angeles Unified School District doesn't report to the mayor or doesn't report to county supervisors, so the school supervisor has the ability to make an independent decision to close the schools. In New York, the schools are controlled by the mayor, so there's a completely different chain of command.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston speaking with us from New York. Thanks, Dina, for the insight.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.