Who’s Behind the Boston Bombings? Some Initial Clues

The attack was low-tech and apparently leaderless, which points us in several possible directions

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John Tlumacki / Boston Globe / Getty Images

Investigators at the scene on Boylston Street at site of the second bomb explosion in Boston on April 16, 2013

Today, after the attack at the Boston Marathon, Boston is a changed city. People are stunned and sad, desperate to know who would attack us and why.

The FBI is not ready to tell us much. But there are some clues about what sort of individual or group might be responsible. The type of weapon — a pressure-cooker device — is one important clue. While this kind of bomb has been used around the world, including in the Mumbai attacks of 2006, it was recently promoted in an article titled “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” in the summer 2010 issue of al-Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire. The Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad followed the recipe, though Shahzad’s bomb would have killed many more people than the relatively small bombs in Boston.

(MORE: A Marathon Finisher Remembers How It All Sank In)

Who might use such a device? The first possibility would be individuals following al-Qaeda’s recipe, imagining themselves to be furthering its goals by carrying out a “do-it-yourself” attack. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been publishing “open-source jihad” instructions and ideas for how to commit low-level terrorist attacks, and Westerners hoping to participate in the “jihad” are urged to carry it out at home. It’s too risky to travel to Pakistan to get trained; jihadist volunteers are too likely to get caught. Instead, volunteers are urged to carry out their own low-level, leaderless attacks.

(MORE: From Jerusalem to Boston: Learning to Live With the Threat of Urban Violence)

But leaderless resistance actually has its origins in American antigovernment groups, which is the second possibility. The concept was first introduced in the 1980s in a magazine called Survivalist Alert. It was then popularized by neo-Nazis on websites like Stormfront and later picked up by groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. The purpose of leaderless resistance is to evade law-enforcement detection. If small groups, unaffiliated with the movement’s leaders, could act on their own, the virtual organization would be far less vulnerable. This style of organization has been greatly enhanced by the Internet, which allows participants to communicate anonymously. The upside, from the terrorists’ point of view, is that such groups are harder to penetrate and stop. The downside for them (and the upside for us) is that they can’t do as much damage as a terrorist army.

(MORE: Inside the Hunt for the Boston Marathon Bomber)

Another variable that makes us consider American antigovernment groups is the date of the attack. Patriots’ Day is a sacred holiday for these groups. First, it was the date, in 1985, that law-enforcement authorities invaded the compound of a white-supremacist antigovernment group called the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA). That group, which aimed to fight the “Zionist Occupied Government,” had acquired a crude chemical device and plotted to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Ten years later, Timothy McVeigh, who had been in contact with the leadership of CSA, actually carried out the attack, choosing a day close to Patriots’ Day in part because it was the anniversary of the siege of Waco.

Since the late 1960s, Patriots’ Day is celebrated in Massachusetts on the third Monday in April, which this year was on April 15, coinciding with tax day, another important day for antigovernment groups. And while the choice of weapon might make authorities focus on leaderless jihadist groups, it’s worth noting that Inspire magazine’s recipe for pressure-cooker bombs was promoted by the white-supremacist website Stormfront.

(PHOTOSAftermath of the Boston Marathon Explosions)

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), American antigovernment groups are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. In March, the SPLC sent a letter to the attorney general and the Secretary of Homeland Security warning that “we now also are seeing ominous threats from those who believe that the government is poised to take their guns.” The SPLC warns that the number of conspiracy-minded antigovernment groups grew from 149 in 2008, the year that President Obama was elected, to 1,360 in 2012. Today’s figure exceeds the highest figure from the 1990s by more than 500. The SPLC sent a similar warning to the U.S. government six months prior to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Whoever the perpetrators of this heinous crime turn out to be, it is one more reminder that there are costs to choosing to live in a free society. Totalitarian rule is a far better bulwark against terrorism (at least inside the country) than is democracy. But few Americans would want to live in the kind of country where this kind of low-tech, apparently leaderless attack could always be thwarted. Unfortunately, this dilemma will be made all the more apparent if investigators ultimately conclude that the terrorists in question were homegrown.

PHOTOS: Front-Page Headlines From Papers Across America

267 comments
jmsmadison17
jmsmadison17

How could this "terrorism" expert get it so wrong. She was more interested in a political diatribe against "right-wingers", at a time when there was virtually no information except the overall circumstances, principally the place and type of bomb, that if anything strongly indicated an Al Qaeda type attack. The target wasn't a government building, the hallmark of past domestic attacks. I wouldn't place much credence in anything this author says after her performance in this article. There was nothing objective about it and it displayed a faulty chain of logic.

Wotan09
Wotan09

LOL. Yeah it would make perfect since for 'White supremacists' to blow up fit, attractive White people. T4rds.

tech5959
tech5959

Occupy Wall Street took the name 'Days of Rage' directly from Bill Ayers' Days of Rage protest in which he called for the murder of all rich people and told the young people to even murder their parents. Even. Now Ayers says they didn't blow up enough bombs.

tech5959
tech5959

Why not mention someone from the Occupy Wall Street crowd? Five were arrested for trying to blow up a bridge in Ohio. One was arrested for shooting at the White House. Others put feces in public places like bank lobbies so innocent people would step in it.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

There we go again with 'American anti-government'. Is the purpose here to demonize anyone who does not agree with the current course of a nation that has sent its industrial plant to China and left millions without a job? Both parties are guilty of supporting the globalization agenda and if there is anything that a politician fears more than truth it is when the public gets fed up with their mistakes. 

Today, the main-scream media doesn't serve We the People anymore. They are a fully owned subsidiary of that dangerous complex that Dwight Eisenhower tried to warn us of so long ago. 

We are allowed to dislike this current trend. We're tired of seeing empty plates filled with pointless and utterly hopeless hopes. This is not anti-government... it is PRO-America. 

hummingbird
hummingbird

Yes, there are more anti-government domestic groups than ever before. I can't imagine that the FBI would ignore this during their investigation. These hate groups in America are as angry and paranoid as can be so one of them could have done this.

Think_again
Think_again

Each time someone — anyone — defends their interpretation of the second amendment by claiming that we need to be able to 'defend ourselves against the government,' we need to recognize that this is a defense of (or apologetics for) precisely this kind of act of terrorism. 

Whether the person is right-wing or left-wing is irrelevant, and can be determined after that argument is made. That said, it would be very enlightening to follow the proportion of conservatives v. 'librals' making the claim for a constitutional right if not moral duty to resist the 'tyranny' of our own government.

tfdrumm
tfdrumm

This thread is going to slow way down once all the righties switch to streaming Margaret Thatcher's funeral.

BCayenneBird
BCayenneBird

Torture at Gitmo of people's loved ones, murder of innocent children with drones, bombings all over the world. These could be a reason for revenge. Might be a good time to right some wrongs.

StevenSigmon
StevenSigmon

The CIA trained Afghans to use pressure cookers against the soviets.

Mimivesta
Mimivesta

Sure are a lot of dumb right wingers out here who want to acknowledge zero reality, history or facts as usual. I guess the poor boys never heard of Timothy McVeigh who was responsible for the worst terrorist attack on American soil before 9/11. 

One hundred and sixty men women and children--innocents all--because they worked (or in the case of the kids there was a day care center) in a federal building. Timmy was trying yo make a point about Waco so he killed more Americans. Makes sense, right?

Oh yeah, he was obsessed about guns and his Second Amendment "rights." This happened in 1996. Before your time maybe?

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@ArxFerrum So what exactly is PRO-America about arming yourself for a possible war with our legally elected government? Last time I checked that would be Treason.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

@hummingbird It's not about hate. It's about a love for a country that doesn't have to create the concept of people hating themselves. This is supposed to be a land of the free where people have a right to disagree with their government and brave enough to speak out without fear of reprisal. 

CritterFactory
CritterFactory

@hummingbird Again, if this had been a government target, that would make perfect sense. However ,even a radical ideology favors a target that furthers said groups agenda. Why would a radical group of people target a high profile target unrelated to their ideals, and then not claim responsibility, and not attempt to further their extreme message? This looks like someone who favors anarchy, and to simply terrorize as a whole. Not further a right/left wing agenda though attack.  

brianlandon2
brianlandon2

@tfdrumm  

you obviously do not realize the impact Thatcher had on British politics. Blair's labour party was a child of her Conservative party, when it decided that tying itself to big union support, especially in the public sector was not the best way to go.

Also, one can tell you did not live during the era. Because it was Thatcher who helped push Ronald Reagan to stop the Soviet Union's Communist steamroller. My aunt lived in eastern Europe during the era, and despite what you 'lefties' idealize communism as, it was a despicable regime. In the end it bankrupted itself, as its bloated government bureaucracy destroyed any hint of free markets, sort of like the bloated government of Obama which is now bankrupting the US.


brianlandon2
brianlandon2

@BCayenneBird 


ah yes, and how about the Chinese selling missiles/weapons to African countries and to Iran? I guess you forget that!

Oh well, its the usual response of a socialist.

KennethDougherty
KennethDougherty

@Mimivesta  I'm a conservative and think there wasn't a punishment painful enough for the scumbag Timothy McVeigh. And 99.99% of all on the right feel that way. As do people on the left. To lump any side with such a scumbag is sickening.

ddruck58
ddruck58

You believe the official version of the OK City bombing? Ask yourself how an explosion big enough to take out steel-reinforced concrete columns can leave glass windows intact a few yards away. Look at the pictures of the building after the blast. BTW, my degree is in Architecture.

SteveBeineke
SteveBeineke

@Mimivesta you libs name 2...McVeigh and Waco....and keep repeating it  The rest are almost all liberals.

JuanViche
JuanViche

@Mimivesta If you haven't seen A Noble Lie: Oklahoma City 1995 yet you need to get a hold of it and watch it.

shazbot.almighty
shazbot.almighty

@Mimivesta  That piece of garbage bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

BTW - Watching 'dumb left wingers' and 'dumb right wingers' bicker is like watching monkeys fling feces at each other.  It accomplishes nothing, yet is very entertaining.  Keep flinging, bootlicker.

PatMinturn
PatMinturn

@Mimivesta Left-wing radicals like Bill Ayers and the Weather Underground never used bombs, right? You are a pompous demagogue that wants to politicize a horrendous and tragic event. Shame on you.

CritterFactory
CritterFactory

@Mimivesta Said it before, I will say parts of it again. 


Last time I checked he was a neo-Nazi. As in a national socialist party? nothing? 

Okay.. to be fair I really think he was just a paranoid racist. I hardly think he was an establishment republican. Hardly what I would consider a supporter of a constitutional republic. 

I think you just like to hate the right wing for it's current social issue standings. The more you can paint the right wing as crazy rednecks, the more you can justify your support of an opposing party. Clearly this idea that an average american with a conservative philosophy has a greater potential to become a domestic terrorist is destructive, and irresponsible. 



hummingbird
hummingbird

@CritterFactory We're all just speculating at this point but we can't rule anyone out. Sometimes the terrorists avoid doing the obvious. They also might fear that the govt buildings are under surveillance so they chose a soft target. A right wing hate group could be trying to prove that gun control won't stop attacks as bombs could be used instead.

tfdrumm
tfdrumm

@brianlandon2 @tfdrumm 

Not a single word of what yo've written follows from my comment.  On the other hand, if your observations about Thatcher have merit, they serve to support my contention that conservatives ("righties") were likely to stream her funeral.

You should learnto think for yourself rather than simply disgorging what you read in the morning Op Eds.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@SteveBeineke @Mimivesta Yep its liberals that are gunning down law enforcement officials in Texas and Colorado. And its Liberals that are stockpiling arms for a war of insurrection and secession?

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@PatMinturn @Mimivesta And how many decades ago was that. Care to check on the last decade or so of domestic terror attacks and let us know on whose ledger they show up?

hummingbird
hummingbird

@KennethDougherty We really don't see left wing groups acting threatening. Since the gun control debates started some politicians have received threats from people who don't want gun control measures. We also remember that Timothy McVeigh was a right wing, white supremacist nut job.

KennethDougherty
KennethDougherty

@hummingbird @CritterFactory Or a left wing group could be mad since it's becoming obvious new gun control law will be weak or not happen at all. Point is, some of us find it distasteful that many will bring up right wing groups but not left wing groups as suspects. ABC, CBS, NBC and MSNBC are all guilty of it. TVO is sweet and I've listened to their people do this. FOX has a different take. They aren't blaming anybody but many of their speakers are upset about this unquestionable bias. Just saying.....

JuanViche
JuanViche

@mantisdragon91 @JuanViche @Mimivesta I didn't say his brother knew of the bombs before they happened. I said that he was pulled out of the race before the bombs went off, which I find to be of interest as to possible foreknowledge on the part of someone. I didn't state that his brother knew that the bombs were going to go off..

JuanViche
JuanViche

@mantisdragon91 @JuanViche @Mimivesta I thought you were talking about the movie A Noble Lie: Oklahoma City 1995 .. so I misunderstood your comment. I was referring to the movie A Noble Lie: Oklahoma City 1995.

JuanViche
JuanViche

@mantisdragon91 @JuanViche @Mimivesta You havne't seen A Noble Lie: Oklahoma City 1995 or listened to any interviews of the people who made that movie or you wouldn't be trying to discredit it unless of course you have some kind of agenda to discredit people trying to share information.