A Congressman's Step-By-Step Guide to the Perfect Terrorist Hoax
Yesterday, every school in Los Angeles was closed after the city received an emailed threat of a terrorist attack. Later in the day, the city of New York revealed that it too had received a “similar” email, but did not deem it “credible,” which necessitated that officials in L.A. explain why they decided to abruptly tell some 600,000 kids to stay home.
Today, Brad Sherman, a member of the United States House of Representatives whose district includes L.A., took it upon himself to do just that. He released a detailed statement—which you can read on his website—explaining the differences between the emails received by each city, and why decision makers in L.A. perceived theirs to be more serious.
The statement also conveniently doubles as a manual for making a believable threat against a major American metropolis, so here is:
Rep. Brad Sherman’s How-To Guide to the Perfect Terrorist Hoax
1. Research your jargon
According to Sherman, the hoaxer claimed to be a student of the “Los Angeles Unified district,” which he writes is “is terminology that someone familiar with the Los Angeles schools would use.” On the other hand, in the email to New York officials, the hoaxer said he was a student of the “New York City School District.” Sherman says that “someone who is actually familiar with the New York would use the term ‘New York City Schools’ or ‘DOE’,” which, given what kids do and don’t pay attention to, seems dubious to me. Regardless, the lesson for hoaxers here is obvious: make sure you don’t sound like a foreign nob if you’re trying to position yourself as an insider. This may be hard if you are indeed a foreign nob bent on spreading terror, but be vigilant.
2. Pick a realistic number of accomplices
Sherman states that the email to L.A. said the hoaxer had “32 accomplices ready to strike,” while the email to New York said there were 138 accomplices. Regarding the credibility of these numbers, Sherman writes:
To think that there would be a conspiracy in the Los Angeles involving 33 individuals, including the email author, without the federal government having at least heard enough to raise the threat level is somewhat unlikely. To think that there would be a conspiracy in the New York area involving 139 active shooters ready to act on a single day, all without the federal government at least raising the threat level, is not credible at all.
So pick a good number, and don’t get too greedy. It seems like somewhere around 30 is realistic enough, but you probably shouldn’t go much higher than that. To Brad Sherman’s credit, he didn’t specify the exact number of accomplices that seems most credible, but you can basically figure it out. 15? 20? Watch some old episodes of 24 and count the henchmen.
3. Always capitalize “Allah”
According to Sherman, in the email to L.A. the hoaxer forgot to capitalize the word “Allah” on one occasion. “A devout Muslim, or an extremist Muslim claiming to be devout, would be careful to capitalize the word ‘Allah’,” Sherman writes. If you’re going to play off of America’s generalized Islamaphobia, be diligent in your proofreading and make sure all references to “Allah” are properly stylized.
4. Don’t use a vulgar email address
Sherman writes that the email address used to send the threat contained “an obscene word for a body part.” A subpoena issued by officials in New York revealed that the email was sent using “cock.li,” a meme-y email provider popular among posters on the 4chan offshoot 8chan. According to Sherman, “no devout Muslim, nor a Muslim extremist claiming to be devout, would use” an email service that had the word “cock” in it, so while “cock” is admittedly a very funny word, you should ultimately remember that hoaxing is serious business.
5. Quote the Quran
Per Sherman, the hoaxer could have done more to convince officials that he was actually a Muslim:
The email does not read like any of the missives from Islamic extremists. It does not quote any portion of the Quran nor allude to any incident in the life of Muhammad. The author of the email does not demonstrate any understanding of Islam.
So read the Wikipedia page for Muhammad and Google some quotes from the Quran. That more or less seems like all you need? The standards appear to be very low.
6. Send the email at a logical time
Sherman notes that the email sent to L.A. was received at 10 p.m. local time on Monday, which gave officials a safe window to announce that schools would be closed on Tuesday. But Sherman says the email to New York was received at 5 a.m. local time on Tuesday, which would have made it much more difficult for the city to also close its schools. If you’re trying to shut something down, give those in charge enough time to actually do it. If you’re not from America, reference our time zones to make sure that you don’t send an email at 5 a.m.
7. Don’t say you have nerve gas
“The claim by the author to have nerve gas agent is not credible,” writes Sherman. We know you don’t have nerve gas, you little shithead.