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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Crime

‘A cruel joke’: students unpack after lecture Zoom bombing incident


Gerald Sastra/The Cougar

Gerald Sastra/The Cougar

In an afternoon science class, students were expecting to hop on the Zoom call and learn about climate change. What they weren’t expecting was an unprompted visitor on the call, or a “Zoom bomber,” as they have come to be known.

On Sept. 2, 19-year-old Ibraheem Ahmed Al Bayati was arrested by federal authorities after allegedly making bomb threats during an introductory climate change lecture.

Some students in the Zoom lecture felt fear and discomfort as the incident unfolded in their virtual classroom.

“I watched him throughout the lecture as he walked around what looked like a normal bedroom,  flexing his muscles for the camera,” said business freshman Lindsay Hutchins. “The professor then allowed students to ask questions, which is when the man started saying what seemed to be an actual question relating to the lecture.”

She realized something was “off” about Al Bayati, who later confessed to making the threats, according to a criminal complaint. Hutchins then started recording on Snapchat, expecting Al Bayati to make a funny comment during the class.

“But then he said, ‘what does any of this have to do with the fact that UH is going to be bombed in a few days?’” she said.

The incident resulted in national news coverage as publications like CNN were taking on the story.

The threat had Hutchins concerned for her safety on campus, but assurance in the teaching assistant’s handling of the situation quelled her fears.

“I debated leaving campus and going home, but the TA called the police, and the situation was handled, so I didn’t feel the need to leave campus,” Hutchins said.

For Hutchins, the Zoom bombing came as no surprise as she said the class has faced continuous behavioral issues throughout the semester. She did not stand alone in her opinion, with some of her other classmates sharing incidents from the course.

“As for the class itself, it wasn’t completely out of the blue as prior to the incident some other guy had his shirt off … and another guy asked our professor a question in a (not safe for work) manner,” said environmental science sophomore Joaquín González. “However, hearing the bomb threat still elicited shock as there was no telling if the guy was serious.”

Unsure of the extent of the the threat, González had mixed feelings on how dangerous it actually was.

“In the back of my mind, I figured this might be some guy who had gotten his hands on the Zoom code and wanted to play a cruel joke,” González said. “I still worried for my safety as it’s hard to imagine why someone would say that as a joke.”

Al Bayati, according to the criminal complaint filed against him, claimed his threat was a joke, but he admitted to a federal agent that he was “literally known” as an ISIS recruiter.

In response to the incident, additional training materials were shared with faculty, and the provost’s office is offering an additional round of training, according to UH spokesperson Shawn Lindsey.

“I feel as if the University handled the situation well,” González said. “The TA had brought the unedited recorded lecture before UHPD, and within hours we received an email saying how the authorities had already been contacted.”

In addition to training and resources, the University works with IT security to review the default meeting configurations to balance security with ease, Lindsey said.

In González’s opinion, having the course offered in an asynchronous format would have been the best way to avoid the incident.

“Personally, I would have had the class be asynchronous from the beginning to prevent incidents like these,” González said. “The class is close to 600 people, so it’s always a challenge to make sure they act in accordance with University guidelines given that mostly everyone is working from home.”

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