As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation, it is our great pleasure to present you new analysis of fake news and disinformation narratives.
Bomb Alerts in Serbia: A Narrative of an Organized Western Attack
False reports of bombs in Serbia began to appear frequently since March 2022, after the start of the war in Ukraine. This trend intensified in May, when places across Serbia experienced false threats, which disrupted the daily life and functioning of public institutions, such as hospitals and schools also causing significant economic damage. The threats appeared almost simultaneously and continue to appear in other countries in the region, such as Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Romania.
While the causes of the intensive spread of these threats remain partially or completely unclear, some influential media in Serbia interpreted them as pressure on Serbia due to non-compliance with sanctions against Russia. Some media accused Western countries, their intelligence services and NATO for sending those bomb threats. This interpretation, in the absence of actual evidence, does not seem convincing enough, having in mind that the already mentioned countries in the surrounding of Serbia received similar threats even though they harmonized their foreign policy with the West. On the other hand, such narratives certainly contribute to the strengthening of anti-Western sentiments in the Serbian public.
The impetus for these narratives was given by the Prime Minister in the technical mandate Ms. Ana Brnabić, which, on May 17, as a guest on the national television Pink, unequivocally stated that the bomb threats, which were delivered to the e-mail addresses of many primary schools in Belgrade and several other public places, are a pressure from abroad due to Serbian non-imposition of sanctions on Russia.
“We are the only country in Europe that has not imposed sanctions on Russia, and the pressures are incredible every day, and these bomb threats are a pressure from abroad due to our non-imposition of sanctions on Russia,” Brnabić said at the time.
A day earlier, Minister of interior Aleksandar Vulin said that “the essential goal of all these attacks is for Serbia to stop pursuing our independent politics and to make decisions under pressure and in fear.”
“A special war is being waged against Serbia. Attacks on our country have not been initiated or carried out by any individual, those are mass, organized and very expensive hacker attacks, led from various centres for hybrid warfare,” Vulin said in a statement on May 16.
During the same week, a Twitter account posted a video in which a person who introduced himself as a member of the hacker group Anonymous confirmed that the attacks were executed because Serbia had not harmonized with Western sanctions against Russia. It was not possible to determine whether this message was authentic.
On May 18, police identified eight Serbian citizens who sent threatening messages – two were arrested, and six, which are minors, are under criminal charges. It was also determined that eight such threats came from Poland, four from Gambia, two from Iran and Nigeria each, and one each from Ukraine, Slovenia and Russia. However, according to experts, this does not necessarily mean that the senders were in those countries.
A few days later, Minister Vulin stated that bombs threats received in the previous period could not be prevented and compared the situation with the corona virus, saying that “one has to live with it”.
“This is a form of psychological warfare, modern terrorism, it is frightening. It is impossible to stop those threats, and it is up to us to enhance prevention.” Vulin said for Prva TV.
In the following weeks, the public did not receive any additional information on sources, while bomb threats continued. All of those turned out to be fake.
Based on the current data, there is not enough information to be able to reliably conclude that bomb threats come from abroad, let alone from Western governments and their intelligence services, with an aim to pressure Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia. However, that did not stop many media from continuing to present such narratives in public during the second half of May.
One of the most suggestive and passionate examples of this narrative is the headline on the internet portal of Alo tabloid, published on May 16, which read: “NATO ATTACKS SERBIAN CHILDREN AGAIN The former intelligence officer reveals the hellish goal of the West, nothing is sacred to the bloodthirsty Alliance” The topic of the text was bomb threats, and the commentator was the controversial former member of the State Security Service, Božidar Spasić.
In the text, Spasić, without presenting any evidence, claimed that NATO was behind the bomb threats.
“This intelligence service doing and the false bomb threats only goal is psychologically and propagandistically harassing a part of the population, more precisely Serbian population. Precisely because of the fact that (Serbia) bothers the Western intelligence services, I assume with almost 100% certainty that it comes and is directed by the NATO services,” Spasić said at the time.
Although, he himself emphasized that it was a matter of presumption, the title and subtitle of this text treated the claim as a fact. The subtitles in the text read: “NATO is behind the bomb threats” and “NATO is attacking Serbian children again”, alluding to the fact that numerous bomb threats where addressed to the schools.
Božidar Spasić also made a claim, which Alo did not further analyse, that bomb threats were coming from one centre, and that the reason for their appearance was that “Serbia has taken a principled position regarding the war in Ukraine.”
This article was one of the most impressive, but certainly not the only one in which the West was blamed for the threats, without citing any evidence. This narrative has also spread throughout the region.
Two weeks after the text with Spasić’s statement, the Bosnian-Herzegovinian edition of the Alo portal published an article about bomb threats in that country, more precisely in the cities of Republika Srpska. The headline read: “TERRORISM EXPERT REVEALS TERRIFYING BACKGROUND ON REGION SHAKING BOMB THREATS Galijašević: Serbian children targeted, the West has a clear goal!”
“(Political analyst Dževad) Galijašević told aloonline.ba his conclusion on the situation. Through his presentation, the main culprit is the already established phrase – the West. The political analyst believes that precisely because of the non-imposition of sanctions on Russia, Serbia and BiH are now suffering psychological terror that produces fear and panic among the citizens of these two countries, and that Western Security Agencies are not helping in this case” the text reads.
Other tabloid media portals in Serbia were also involved in spreading this narrative. Republika, the portal of the Serbian Telegraph, reported in the news from May 16 that “there are reasonable suspicions that foreign intelligence services are involved in spreading panic, that this is a special war against Serbia, which increases pressure on our country to impose sanctions on Russia.”
It is not specified which exact grounds for suspicion are meant, nor is the source cited.
This text of the Republic was a carryover of the article from April, in which reports of bomb threats also appeared, albeit to a lesser extent. In that text, under the title “SPECIAL WAR WITH FALSE THREATS: A strike to schools and hospitals follows”, an unnamed source was quoted, who stated that “it is almost sure that these are the work of certain foreign services”.
Even the media that are not perceived as pro-government tabloids also participated in spreading these narratives. In May, the Novi standard published a text by journalist Siniša Ljepojević, who stated that “Serbia is really facing a hybrid war, as well as a series of special operations which is primarily being waged by the West. In the light of the current political environment, the public is convinced that all this is due to the non-imposition of sanctions on Russia, which the West demands from Serbia. ”
However, Ljepojević also stated in his text that “Serbia is not in an easy position, but the solution is certainly not to encourage panic and fear in order to create an atmosphere of deception and creating circumstances for imposing sanctions on Russia, despite the clear position of the people on the issue.”
This point of view may explain why, during May, there was no more intensive promotion of this topic in pro-Russian nor in mainstream media, such as Sputnik, Standard, Pravda, Vaseljenska and the like. These portals mostly only quoted the statements of officials, and did not have, in the observed period, additional contributions to this narrative.
Despite everything, the interpretation that Serbia is being pressured by bomb threats for refusing to impose sanctions on Russia, seems less convincing when you consider that other countries in the region are also facing the same problem during this period.
Thus, on May 27, the news was published in Romania that several bomb threats had been received in the past 24 hours, which was described as “hybrid terrorism”. Romania is a member state of the EU and NATO and is fully in line with its policy towards Russia.
A similar situation occurred in another NATO and European Union member in the region: Croatia. On April 24, the Zagreb Arena shopping centre was evacuated due to an anonymous bomb threat – bomb was not found.
Bomb threats in Croatia are still received almost two months later. On June 12, bombs were reported at 11 locations in Zagreb. “Immediately after receiving the reports, the Zagreb Police Administration contacted the responsible persons of the said facilities and, in coordination with the officers of the Police Administration launched a criminal investigation to determine all relevant circumstances related to the received reports,” Euronews reported.
Also, similar situation was in Montenegro at the end of April, when, due to bomb threats in schools across the country, the authorities decided to suspend classes. The Police Administration then announced that their teams were in schools and inspections were underway. Montenegro is also a NATO member country, which at the time was in line with most sanctions against Russia. Bomb threats have been received in recent weeks in both entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as on Kosovo.
All those information indicate that the situation is almost certainly more complex than the simplified narrative according to which official Western institutions send bomb threats in order to force Serbia to comply with sanctions against Russia. Even after several weeks, no evidence has been offered in support of this anti-Western narrative. On the other hand, the case is still not fully clarified, which leaves room for spreading potential misinformation and various conspiracy theories.
This text was written as part of the Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation.