It’s too much to say we don’t know squat yet about the bombing at the Boston Marathon yesterday, but it’s still pretty close.
It was clarified at the press conference this morning with government officials that there were no additional unexploded devices found near the finish line of the marathon. The only devices known about so far are the two that exploded, 13 seconds apart, just before 3:00 PM EDT.
The officials were unexpansive about the visit of law enforcement to the apartment building in Revere, MA late last night. We already knew that the young Saudi national who was being questioned yesterday was determined to have nothing to do with the bombing.
I am seeing on the TV screen that the explosives were made using pressure cookers loaded with ball bearings. Fox’s Catherine Herridge was speaking earlier of the use of triacetone peroxide (TATP) as the explosive agent. (The character of the explosions was consistent with TATP.) These readily available materials don’t tell us much right now about who might have been responsible. (They may in the coming days, if the point of sale or commercial manufacturer can be established.)
The bombs were effective, which is something. But a quick search of the internet turns up multiple sites offering general information on what it takes to put together a TATP device. The bomb’s characteristics don’t automatically finger anyone or rule out any particular group.
The FBI and Boston Police have disclosed nothing about the ongoing investigation, which is understandable. As far as we know, no one has taken credit for the attack, and we don’t know of any prior warnings that were issued about it (e.g., like bomber Eric Rudolph’s call to police before his bomb went off at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996, killing one woman, leading to the death of a man from a heart attack, and injuring 111).
So we simply don’t know, and can’t guess right now, who did this. We can say that the bombing was relatively small in scope. The explosions were horrific for those in their immediate vicinity, but the bombs were not big ones, and there were only two. With each hour that passes, it becomes more evident that there is no larger plot requiring a group of terrorists of significant size.
Based on what we know so far, the overall nature of the attack is most similar to Eric Rudolph’s in Atlanta in 1996. That doesn’t tell us much, given all the things we don’t know yet. But we can say some things for certain, such as that this was not an attack on a government facility, like the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, nor (contra MSNBC hysteric Chris Matthews) was it mounted on 19 April – the actual date of the OKC bombing and the Waco compound assault. (The mass shooting at Columbine high school was on 20 April 1999).
Certainly, the size of the bombs in Boston was nothing like that of the bomb used by Timothy McVeigh to kill 168 people and injure hundreds more, completely destroying the Murrah Federal Building in the process. McVeigh’s bomb had an explosive effect more powerful than the 2,000-pound warheads used by the U.S. Air Force and Navy. It had to be transported to the Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City in a moving van.
The smaller-bombing M.O. doesn’t rule out Islamist radicals either. Faizal Shahad, a naturalized U.S. citizen who had trained with terrorists in Pakistan, tried to detonate a single car bomb in Times Square on 1 May 2010. As with the Atlanta bombing and the Boston Marathon attack, Shahad was targeting an area with a lot of people in it: going for mass casualties rather than attacking particular buildings. The list of known foiled attacks in the U.S. since 9/11 indicates that Islamist cells plan attacks in different sizes. They aren’t all envisioned as huge attacks that will bring buildings down.
See here, here, here, and here for the associations of Hezbollah as well as Al Qaeda in the New York and Boston areas. If it turned out to be the work of Islamist radicals, this bombing would probably have been launched by fewer than a handful in a loosely connected cell, rather than as a coordinated operation overseen by terror-group leadership.
One possibility, of course, is that the bomber(s) don’t live in the Boston area, and may not even live in New England. Getting the two relatively small bombs to the attack site would not have required living quarters in the vicinity, or other preparations more traceable than the apparent placement of the bombs in trash cans as recorded on CCTV cameras. It would have been quite possible to ride the trains and/or buses to the attack site, and disappear quietly after detonating the bombs. (Doing it this way would have required more than one person, in my judgment – at least while riding the public transportation.)
Where to look for a terrorist who has this in mind, and doesn’t plan to take credit for political purposes, is not clear. The M.O. would be somewhat reminiscent of McVeigh, however, who sought to hide out after the Oklahoma City attack.
There is much that is similar to others in any given bombing attack. It is not obvious that any group or type of person in particular mounted this one, nor can any be ruled out. The law-enforcement authorities have their work cut out for them. (Aside: an official at Massachusetts General Hospital yesterday credited training done two years ago with Israelis for their preparedness to deal with the casualties flooding the hospital after the bombing. Law enforcement officials would probably benefit from consulting with the Israelis on their manhunt for the bomber(s).)
In the meantime, our hearts go out to the victims and their families, including the family of little Martin Richard, who at eight years old has so far been the youngest fatality. (The photo of him, going viral on the web, appears to show him at his first communion, proud and delighted in a white suit, holding a small banner with Alpha and Omega emblazoned on it, along with the dove representing the Holy Spirit.)
We can pray that the doctors and nurses will continue to be fit and energetic as they deal with the awful gore and human pain dealt out by this attack. I saw a comment on Twitter last night that this attack is a reminder of how important the “injuries” are from such an event, even when the death toll seems small. So many people will have to finish their lives without the limbs we all rely on for simple normality. Some were fortunate to have received only superficial wounds; too many will see their lives changed forever by what they have lost. May God’s grace enfold them all.
But Boston will rise. Rise to the occasion, rise above the pain and loss, rise beyond where she was 24 hours ago, peaceful under the cool spring sun, enjoying Patriots Day, and waiting for the last runners to get to the finish line.
I remember two other Twitter comments from yesterday. One made the cheeky point that the attacker(s) should keep in mind what happened to the British Empire the last time someone messed with Boston. The other comment echoed a thought many of us had as we watched the emerging videos of the explosions: that our heroes – police, military, ordinary citizens – run toward the site of an explosion. Whoever this attacker is, he picked the wrong people to mess with.