Someone tweeted yesterday that “the race to be wrong first has begun in earnest.” And that is so — we’ve seen wild media reports that there were 12 people killed (so far there are 3, with about 150 injured), that two Saudi nationals were in custody (the police talked to a Saudi student who was injured in the bombing), and more. But there are some things that are known and can serve as a basis for speculation.
First, the bombs were in backpacks placed against buildings behind the spectators on the sidewalk, and most of the victims were on the sidewalk. So the intent was to kill and injure as many people as possible, at random.
Second, the bombs were homemade using non-military explosives, built into pressure cookers. They contained ball bearings and possibly other items in order to increase their effectiveness as anti-personnel weapons. They were detonated by either a timer or a remote control device, which could have been a cellphone or other radio receiver.
The authorities will pick up every fragment they can, examine explosive residue to determine how it was made, look for parts of the control device, etc. Then they will deploy the huge amount of manpower at their disposal to try to determine where the pressure cookers and backpacks were purchased, as well as the control devices and the chemicals used to make the explosives.
They will look at the massive quantity of security camera video, photos and videos made by spectators, news footage, etc. to try to spot whoever placed the bombs. They will check hundreds, maybe thousands of leads that they will be given by witnesses.
They will consider Islamic terrorism, right- and left-wing anti-government terrorism, and terrorism by mentally disturbed individuals. They will consider terrorist organizations here and abroad and they will consider “lone-wolf” operations.
Rather than too little evidence, there will be too much. It will take time, but I think they will be successful.
So what do I think they will discover?
Does the viciously random nature of the bombing give a clue to the motive? It was directed at people, including children, who would be expected to be among the spectators. Most terrorists pick targets that embody or symbolize their enemies, as Timothy McVeigh chose the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Anti-government terrorists often see themselves as champions of “the people,” and would be unlikely to want to randomly kill ordinary citizens (McVeigh claimed that he was not aware of the day care center in the Murrah building).
Ted Kacyznski, the Unabomber, targeted universities, airlines, etc., symbols of the technology that he hated. Even George Metesky, the Mad Bomber of Manhattan, placed devices in public places only after his attempts to draw attention to his grievance against Consolidated Edison by bombing its installations was ignored.
On the other, hand, anti-government terrorist Eric Rudolph, who bombed the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics, did so to protest abortion and the “homosexual agenda.” Rudolph also bombed abortion clinics and a lesbian bar, but it would have been difficult to deduce his motives from the Olympics bombing alone.
Islamic terrorists often (but not always) perpetrate acts of terrorism aimed at the U.S. in general and its people. Examples include the Times Square bombing attempt, the two World Trade Center bombings, attempted bombings of the Sears Tower, airports, etc. In Israel, of course, mass murder attempts are frequent. The common factor is that the Islamic terrorist sees his enemy as the nation as a whole, and public institutions or citizens as legitimate targets.
What about the bombs? The pressure cooker bomb was described in a DHS bulletin as “[a] technique commonly taught in Afghan terrorist training camps.” A description of such a bomb also appeared in al-Qaeda’s English-language “Inspire” magazine. The use of pressure cookers for bombs dates back at least to 2001, so it is certainly possible that the technique is widely known.