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Utah student threatens to activate nuclear reactor and UN intervention needed in the Sahel region

September 22-28, 2022 | Issue 20

Daniel D’Menzie, Lydia Baccino, Andreea Troneci, Extremism Team

Rohan Rajesh, Shachi Gokhale, Editor; Manja Vitasovic, Senior Editor

YikYak Homepage[1]


Date: September 22, 2022

Location: Utah, USA

Parties involved: University of Utah; arrested University of Utah student; University of Utah students; University of Utah staff; University of Utah campus security; Utah law enforcement; YikYak; YikYak users; young extremists

The event: A University of Utah student was arrested for threatening to detonate a nuclear reactor if her school’s football team lost an upcoming game. She posted threats on the social media app, YikYak, which allows users to share content anonymously. While the student maintains the threats were a joke, local law enforcement, and campus security investigated the university due to the reactor’s capacity to cause mass damage and destroy nearby property. The University of Utah is one of 12 campuses nationwide with nuclear engineering programs that allow students and staff to operate reactors.[2]

Analysis & Implications:

  • There is a roughly even chance that national media coverage of the bomb threat will motivate radicalized students to weaponize hazardous materials like nuclear fissile material at schools to commit an extremist incident. Students involved in a nuclear engineering program almost certainly have the expertise to operate machinery and use school resources, like ID badges, to exploit vulnerabilities like authorization access points. These students will very likely target highly populated campus areas, like study rooms, dorms, and plazas, almost certainly to accumulate mass casualties.

  • Extremists may likely use YikYak and its legitimate dissemination services to share their messages with new audiences among young college students. The app’s privacy settings will very likely protect radical users’ identities, locations, and activities, likely allowing them to subvert law enforcement detection and bolster operations. Extremists will very likely use mainstream social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, along with YikYak to interact, share their real identities, vet potential recruits, and organize meet-ups.


Date: September 22, 2022

Location: Sahel Region, Africa

Parties involved: UN; Secretary-General Antonio Guterres; Senegal; Mauritania; Niger, Mali; Burkina Faso; Nigeria; Chad; Sudan; Ethiopia; Eritrea; local militant groups

The event: Guterres discussed the rising socio-political instability in Africa’s Sahel region while addressing world leaders at the UN. He asserted that without adequate UN intervention, the effects of terrorism, organized crime, extremism, and armed militias would extend beyond the Sahel to the rest of Africa and become a global issue. Environmental degradation, including soil erosion and the depletion of water resources, is impacting the economy of countries like Burkina Faso and Ethiopia and worsening socio-political conditions in the Sahel.[3]

Analysis & Implications:

  • Terrorists in the Sahel will very likely exploit the depletion of natural resources to fuel social unrest, and likely to destabilize local governments. They will very likely intensify attacks on critical infrastructures, like coal-fired power plants, likely to disrupt public services and increase social tension. The disruption of services will almost certainly worsen the ongoing humanitarian crisis, very likely increasing internal displacement. Citizens will likely join terrorist groups for protection if they deem their government as unable to protect them.

  • Limited natural resources will very likely aggravate local conflicts, as terrorist groups, militias, and the government will very likely maintain control over supplies. Increased violence will very likely hinder the development and the restoration of the areas that could serve as a refuge for displaced persons, almost certainly compelling some citizens to flee to neighboring countries. This will very likely strain border patrol efforts and fuel tensions with local populations over resources. There is a roughly even chance that the increased vulnerability resulting from the humanitarian crisis will motivate some refugees to join organized crime, human and weapons smuggling, and extremist groups to ensure their safety and protect their livelihood.

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[1] Yikyak homepage April 2022 by Jack Hannon licensed under Creative Commons

[2] A Utah student has been charged with making terrorism threats over a football game, NPR News, September 2022

https://www.npr.org/2022/09/22/1124637494/university-of-utah-student-terrorist-threats-football-game

[3] Sahel security crisis "poses a global threat", Guterres warns, United Nations: UN News, September 2022

https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/09/1127571

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