American Company Identifies Online Threats to Prevent Violence

03 October, 2017

Last Friday, employees at an American company discovered threats on social media against a school in Edmonton, Canada.

The company, the Tactical Institute, has offices in Washington, D.C.

The institute gave the threat information to the school's leadership and the Edmonton Police Department. The school was put on lockdown -- meaning people were not permitted to leave or enter the building.

A short time later, law enforcement officials detained the person who police say wrote the threat on Twitter. The lockdown ended, and the school was declared safe, The Edmonton Journal newspaper reported.

In one of the tweets, the suspect wrote, "Maybe I should take a ... gun to school tomreow (CQ) shoot up the school. He says that is "how u people make me feel (angry.)"

Bob Dowling is the president of the Tactical Institute. He says it provides reports to businesses about threats on social media against them and their workers.

The institute is now offering the service to schools at what he says is a lower price.

Social media and the Las Vegas attack

Dowling does not know whether threats or suggestions of violence will be found on social media about Stephen Paddock.

Police identified him as the gunman who killed over 50 people in Las Vegas Sunday night. Police said he fired shots from the upper floors of a hotel at a large crowd of people attending an outdoor country music festival.

Dowling said that his company is looking at the internet for any information that might suggest why the Nevada man would commit the largest mass murder in recent American history.

"We are actually scouring the internet right now with law enforcement looking for any social media presence."

It may be that that there is not much from Stephen Paddock on social media. But Dowling said that some people who knew Paddock might have written something about him that would offer a possible explanation why he would kill so many people.

Dowling once worked as a special agent for the United States government. He told VOA he does not know how many people plotting an attack discuss their plans on social media.

"We don't know what is going on in everybody's mind. But we attempt our very best to find that small minority of individuals in the vast minority that is contemplating doing dangerous acts or acts toward people, innocent people."

Bob Dowling.
Bob Dowling.

In the Edmonton school threat, Dowling said, an 18-year-old high school student had written two tweets that raised concerns about violence. It included threats of a violent attack on the school, as well as a plan to take his own life.

The student had also published a video up on social media that showed him walking alongside the Balwin School, which serves students in grades one through nine. It also offers kindergarten classes for younger children.

Fortunately, there was no attack on the school and its students. But on Saturday night, there was violence in Edmonton.

Police reported a car and knife attack on a police officer near a field where a football game was taking place, and a high-speed chase involving a moving van. The incident left four people injured.

Polices said the attacks were carried out by a single man. Police arrested a 30-year-old man, Abdulahi Hasan Sharif. He was identified as a Somalia refugee who was once investigated for connections to extremism.

Dowling said that there does not seem to be connections between Hasan Sharif and the student who made threats on Twitter.

But there is another point worth looking into, Dowling said.

The student who wrote threats against the school on Twitter posted videos. At least one of them shows drivers running people down with their cars or trucks. The drivers then leave their vehicles and use knives to attack the victims again.

That is what Hasan Sharif is accused of doing Saturday night in Edmonton -- one day after the student's tweets were discovered.

The Tactical Institute employs former members of the U.S. armed forces to look on social media for threats against its paying customers.

Dowling said that his company will tell schools and others of threats it discovers against them during its social media searches -- whether they are customers or not. He says that Tactical has warned 18 schools, including one in Scotland, about threats of violence against their students, teachers and school buildings.

I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

festival - n. a special time or event when people gather to celebrate something or listen to performances

scour - v. to search for something carefully and thoroughly

contemplate - v. thinking about doing something

fortunately - adv. used to say that something happened or something bad did not happen