Bombers or Bomb Threat Makers?

Looking for Hunters, Dealing with Howlers

Posted Apr 19, 2013

When it comes to the Boston bombings on April 15, we are in good news-bad news territory, both now and since 9/11.  The good news is that these events are rare.  The bad news is that they are catastrophic.  Good news: we often catch the perpetrators or kill them in the process.  Bad news: they often spawn copycats around the world.

The biggest problem with stopping explosions is that they don’t begin with pre-attack threats.  In simple terms, real bombers bomb; they don’t make bomb threats.  The majority of police calls related to bombs are false alarms, made by drunks, the mentally ill, revenge-seeking ex-employees, or the kid who doesn’t want to take his third period French exam.

Real bombers leave bombs inside or outside the buildings they have targeted.  Sometimes they go off – thankfully, when no people are there – and sometimes they are discovered by cops, security guards, or people who call 9-1-1 to report they have found a suspicious device.  The response to these situations should involve the usual rollout of the fire department, Bomb Squads, and other explosives experts, from the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATFE), and even the military.  They break out the hot and heavy suits, the x-ray machines, the robots, the K9s, and do what they do to keep us all safe.

But bomb threat makers are certainly more plentiful and we often waste a lot of resources, personnel, and time looking for bombs that aren’t there.  Timothy McVeigh didn’t warn the occupants of the Oklahoma Federal Building before he attacked.  Ted Kaczynksi did not tell the recipients of his mail bombs what they were about to open.  The two Russian brothers believed to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings did not call in a threat to race officials. 

In talking to a colleague from the ATFE, I asked him how many bomb threats he had responded to over his 30-plus year-career, where he had found a real bomb and he said, “Zero.”  He has certainly discovered real bombs when called to the homes of bomb makers.  He has found real and fake bombs when called by people who saw an odd-looking device on the ground, but again, real bombers bomb, they don’t make bomb threats.

This sounds painfully counterintuitive, as if I didn’t care about people.  In my threat assessment classes, I suggest that it is an overreaction to order the evacuation of a facility based solely on a phoned-in bomb threat, a note found in the employee breakroom, or an anonymous e-mail from, absent of a suspicious device.  My audiences look at me as if I were crazy.

I care about people and have spent my entire adult life trying to keep them safe from violence.  In the face of a bomb threat, first responders should look very hard for an unusual or suspicious package, bag, or device, that does not belong in or around the facility, and that has the characteristics of an explosive device: oddly-shaped, leaking, hissing, ticking, oozing, giving off a chemical smell, burnt, shaped like a pipe, having wires, batteries, etc.

Should we find something like that or it is discovered by someone else, then it’s off to the races, get everyone out and away, and break out the bomb suits.  But when we evacuate a business – as happened this week at Cal Berkeley and Cal State Los Angeles, where one campus was shut down and evacuated after bomb threats (with no devices ever found) and one was not – we tell the bomb threat makers that they can completely control our lives with a call or a note.

Should we try to identify the bomb threatener, using all available technology – cell phone pings, phone traces, and Internet searches for similar threatening language?  Of course.  I hate crooks that make people afraid to live their lives.  But when we pull the passengers from an airliner and search it with bomb-sniffing dogs, because a flight attendant found a bomb threat written in crayon in the bathroom or some idiot called the Control Tower, we are falling right into the hands of people who make threats, as opposed to people who pose threats.

This last statement is at the core of the very real differences, as the US Secret Service, the US Marshals Service, and the FBI have taught me: we have more to be concerned with from people who don’t make threats than those who do. 

Dr. Fred Calhoun and Steve Weston have done significant research, training, and writing to support their groundbreaking model: some people “howl” – make overt threats, draw attention to themselves, frighten others intentionally, and some people “hunt” – develop a hidden plan, acquire the tools or weapons to harm others, work in stealth, and attack with no warning.  Calhoun was the historian for the US Marshals and is currently a deputy director for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  Weston was the commander in charge of the California Highway Patrol’s Dignitary Protection Detail.  As they so accurately put it in their two books (1) on this subject: ”Howlers don’t hunt and Hunters don’t howl.  When Howlers start to hunt, they are no longer Howlers.”

The exception to the Hunter-Howler threat dynamic is when the victim and the suspect have had a previously intimate or sexual relationship.  When the suspect says, “If I can’t have her, no one else can,” we take these threats very seriously, as they are the words of a domestic violence-prone Hunter.

Their model agrees with similar work from the FBI and the Secret Service.  While the Secret Service talks to Howlers, who even call them to say they want to kill the President, they look for Hunters.  While they manage both types of people, it is the Hunters who keep them up nights worried that these perpetrators will move, as they put it in their research studies, “along a path from ideas to actions."

Howlers howl to make people fearful, to appear provocative, to draw attention to themselves or their causes, and to disrupt the school or business.  Hunters stalk their targets, make detailed plans, acquire and practice with weapons, and for real bombers, create explosive devices, test them, and detonate them, all without warning.

Why don’t Hunters howl? They don’t want to be stopped or arrested; they want their chance to strike.  Why don’t Howlers hunt?  Except for the domestic violence perpetrators, they are not willing to move along the path from thinking about violence to using violence.What does all this mean to law enforcement?  We can and have stopped Hunters by using good old-fashioned police work: vigilant patrolling; hardcore curiosity; the willingness to dig deeper; surveillance; investigations; informants; interpreting unconnected events and piecing them together; and following-up with concerned family, friends, or associates of the suspect, who report his behaviors of concern, prior to his attack.


(1)        Calhoun, Frederick S & Weston, Stephen W. (2003). Contemporary Threat Management. San Diego, CA: Specialized Training Services.

(2)        Ibid. (2009).  Threat Assessment and Management Strategies.  Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press

Dr. Steve Albrecht is a San Diego-based speaker, author, and trainer.  He has spent his career focused on high-risk employee problems, crime prevention, threat assessment, and school and workplace violence issues.  In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first books on workplace violence.   He holds a doctorate in Business Administration; an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English.  He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 15 books on business, HR, and criminal justice subjects.  He can be reached at or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht