False Bomb Threats Unleashed In Kosovo

On June 16th, the Kosovo Police (KP) reported a series of nationwide bomb threats, primarily targeted at primary schools in Serb-majority communities, which were later confirmed to be hoaxes. The KP confirmed that seventy-two schools received anonymous bomb threats, via electronic means, prompting evacuations before a search of the targeted buildings by bomb disposal specialists. The danger was not isolated to just schools; the Pristina International Airport was also targeted, resulting in the diversion of flights and fighter jets being deployed.

The incidents were not a new phenomenon for Kosovan nationals. The first false bomb threat was made in December 2021, and the atmosphere has intensified since then amidst a backdrop of deteriorating security in the Balkans. The wave of bomb threats has also affected neighbouring Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro. Kosovo, therefore, is not unique in facing the challenges of cyber-terrorism; it instead appears to be a casualty of Serbia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia.

Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Serbian government has had to contend with thousands of threats directed at the country’s critical infrastructure, with the Serbian Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, categorizing the spate of false alarms as a premeditated ‘form of pressure for not placing sanctions on the Russian Federation.’ Serbia, unlike the wider European community, has not imposed economic sanctions and is one of the few European countries to continue operating flights to either Moscow or St Petersburg.

It is no coincidence that these threats are occurring in both Serbia and Kosovo. The schools that have been targeted in the latter nation are those that are administered by the Serbian government, operating within a parallel education system in Kosovo that precedes the 1998-99 conflict. One message, written in Cyrillic, received by a school in the Pristina District talked about ‘overthrowing the Serbian government.’ Another sent to a Serbian-affiliated news agency in North Mitrovica included the phrase ‘Glory to Ukraine.’ Both messages indicate a keenness on the perpetrator’s part to present the threats in Kosovo as a direct consequence of Serbia’s inaction towards Russia.

Serbian politicians have been quick to blame pro-Ukrainian forces. Back in April, when a series of false bomb threats were made against Air Serbia flights to Russia, President Aleksander Vucic alleged that Ukrainian intelligence services were culpable, a claim dismissed as false by Ukraine’s foreign ministry. In contrast, the reaction from the Kosovan government has been more muted, refusing to wade into the public spat between Serbia and Ukraine.

The continuous false bomb threats in Kosovo could have long-term implications. Although they have turned out to be hoaxes, each threat must be investigated fully, which involves time-consuming evacuations before a return to normalcy is possible. A constant flurry of these threats can be a drain on police resources and could have repercussions for other policing departments.

The wave of threats on June 16th coincided with the protests of hundreds of war veterans outside of parliament in Pristina, possibly done so to maximize the disruption caused. As Adis Balota, a professor at the Faculty of Information Technologies in Podgorica, noted, the false alarms appear to be synchronized, aimed at paralyzing institutions and spreading insecurity.

This insecurity will have knock-on effects on education too. The constant disruption to schooling will have led to many lost hours of learning for students and the creation of an atmosphere of fear around public institutions, especially during a time when the education system is still recovering from the pandemic.

There is, however, progress being made. In May, Serbian Police announced that they had traced several bomb threats back to seven countries. A month later, a Gambian citizen was arrested on a tip from the Serbian government via Interpol, highlighting the importance of information-sharing between the police forces of different nations. For Kosovo, to mitigate these long-term consequences, a focus on greater international cooperation with its neighbours will be necessary.

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