Technical analysis offers first clues about Boston Marathon bomber(s)

Site of one of the Boston Marathon blastsBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
Counterterrorism experts probing Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon are bound to start searching for the culprits by focusing on the technical specifications of the attacks. According to the Boston Police Department, three people were killed and at least 144 were injured —many of them critically— by the blasts, which rocked downtown Boston at 2:45 p.m. local time. The second explosion was carefully timed to coincide with the initial blast, and occurred just ten seconds later, fewer than 100 yards down the road from the site of the first explosion. At least one report stated that law enforcement teams found and dismantled up to five additional devices at the site, which had failed to detonate. But one police official later denied these reports, saying that “closer examinations led [the police] to doubt that [the devices] were bombs”. If additional devices were indeed present at the site of the blast, it is likely that they failed to detonate due to the collapse of the wireless network in Boston, which was knocked down by a sudden spurt in usage following the initial blasts. If, as it appears, these bombs were types of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and if suicide terrorism was not involved, chances are the devices were remotely triggered using the diodes commonly found inside the speakers of inexpensive cell phones. Depending on the constitution of the bombs themselves, they could contain ball bearings, screws, or other metal fragments stuffed inside a container around some type of explosive.

There has been speculation on the Internet that the smoke caused by the explosions may point to the use of synthetic fertilizer as the main explosive. This could only be the case if the IEDs used were large in size, because it would take a tremendous amount of commercial fertilizer to cause an explosion capable of causing mass casualties. Considering that the main tactical objective of the bomber(s) would have been to build IEDs small enough to remain unnoticed by the huge crowds attending the Boston Marathon, the use of fertilizer can be considered unlikely. The ideal ordnance for this type of terrorist attack would be a dense, high-grade explosive, such as Composition 4 (C-4) plastic explosive. The latter is the explosive of choice for both religious and secular terrorist groups the world over. But a report on CNN on Monday suggested that no high-grade explosive was used in the Boston Marathon blasts, which would appear to be substantiated by the relatively low number of casualties. Indeed, putting aside the tragic loss of life, one is struck by the low number of casualties, considering that the IEDs were placed among the crowd of spectators.

Government authorities in Washington said on Monday night that no immediate claims of responsibility for the blasts had been issued by any individuals or groups. However, based on a technical analysis of the bombings —which at this early point inevitably remains speculative— one can cautiously infer that the culprit or culprits possessed rudimentary knowledge and limited experience of IED architecture. Consequently, the explosive devices used where crude in both conception and execution, but were made more potent by their placement among the crowd of spectators. This is hardly professional work of the sort one would associate with al-Qaeda, though it might be the creation of an al-Qaeda-inspired domestic terrorist cell. Alternatively, it could point to a secular far-right group or individual, who might have been inspired by the actions of Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik. It is worth noting that he too employed IEDs in the 2011 Norway attacks, which killed 77 people, although in his case, he constructed a car bomb employing fertilizer and fuel oil.

16 Responses to Technical analysis offers first clues about Boston Marathon bomber(s)

  1. Pete says:

    Yes as I said in the previous article the bomber might always be rightwing and perhaps lone-wolf .

  2. Kidd says:

    with no claim of responsibility, the bomber(s) have a good chance to strike again,learning from their failure to cause more destruction. these(bomber) were not pros. but what message were they trying to deliver remains a mystery. backpack remanents could lead to where the packs were bought, and follow back to the buyer.

  3. Mike Barnett says:

    I have serious doubts about the bomber(s) being of right-wing domestic origin. Domestic bombers with a political agenda (be they left or right) tend to attack the structure or organization that offends them, not soft targets. Terrorists who base their attacks on religious ideology (either foreign or domestic) are more likely to attack soft targets. And when religion is the primary motivator, I tend to discount political leanings as anything more than a low level rationalizer. Do I think the attackers were domestic? No, with the possible exception of someone, or a group, that has opted into a foreign extremist group and/or theological belief system such as what Al Queda promotes. If they ARE domestic, I would find it far more likely that a group similar to the Westboro Baptists were responsible than, say, Tea Partiers, especially given the target.

  4. woodan says:

    Smokless powder is the most probable, as it is the easiest to obtain, nobody will waste the effort and risk of peroxide based explosives stateside, when walmart has everything they need…

  5. Ben Piper says:

    High number of failures-intermediate level of technology – no responsibility claimed – strikes me as a classic right wing
    de-stabilisation stunt.

  6. TFH says:

    Nationals from nearly all countries in the world run the Boston marathon so this has drawn international attention in the media. Is it cynical to wonder about what this is drawing attention away from?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Guesswork on the explosive used must account for a large cloud of orange flame seen in at least one video frame, white smoke, and a high velocity blast wave capable of doing the damage reported by medical sources. This rules out ANFO, black powder, and nitrocellulose (“smokeless” powder). Cell phone detonators make no sense in this context, where a detailed schedule of events available weeks in advance indicated where crowds would be, and when. A cheap digital watch with alarm function would be the most likely timer. But pull back and take in the big picture to see the elephant in the living room: Terrorism is propaganda of the deed, in support of a political agenda. Where is the perpetrator(s) manifesto, press release, etc? So far, the only evident motive for the perpetrator(s) is to increase public support for expansion of Federal police powers, at the expense of Constitutionally protected rights essential for the survival of populist political movements.

  8. Kidd says:

    i’m going with home grown amature, someone who blended very well, not a person you would expect, someone dressed in a offical capacity

  9. Pete says:

    In the absence of a North Korean capability to carry out their promise of hitting the continental US with a missile I wonder if they used those (relatively simple) bombs instead?

    There is, after all, a precedent of North Korean agents blowing up an airliner :

    “On 29 November 1987, the aircraft flying that route exploded in mid-air upon the detonation of a bomb planted inside an overhead storage bin in the airplane’s passenger cabin by North Korean agents…”

  10. TFH says:

    A wave of bombings in Iraq 15th of April, 50 dead and 300 injured, both Sunni and Shia targeted, no claim of responsibility! This cant be a coincidence.

  11. Pete says:

    @TFH unfortunately bombings in Iraq are quite common since 2003, right through the year. See . Note that there have been literally thousands of terrorist incidents in Iraq since 2003.

    Also the March 19, 2013 bombings killed more (98 dead) than the 15 April Iraq bombings (50 dead) to which you refer.

    Actually this,_January%E2%80%93June_2013 may be useful to analyse.

  12. Dr Dave says:

    Clearly the work of professionals. Blasts were in fact very strong for such small packaging and dismembered at least 30 bystanders and hospitals report over 170 injured. The only reason there was not a much higher body count was the immediate availability of medical responders with tourniquets, triage and immediate evacuation via the multitude of first responders and ambulances already on site and just yards away. Reports of a swarthy man with a hood on covering part of his face and carrying a backpack attempting repeatedly to access the secure area near the medical tent, but was stopped. Well planned, well executed sequentially timed and of classic middle-eastern style preparation. Have to assume Al Queda or associates as most likely source.

  13. TFH says:

    @Pete, you’re right. I hadn’t realized these types of attacks were so frequent it could actually be a coincidence, with the no claim of responsibility part, civilian targets and type of bomb devices being similar I though it obvious, apparently not.

  14. mopsie says:

    if there are arsonists who light fires simply because they get a thrill out of fires, why cant there be bombers who have no motive other than they really like explosions? maybe there is no political motive!!! at the moment, i’m going with that theory, if just for a change from the angry man theories. maybe someone who played too many video war games…

  15. Andrew says:

    I can’t purport to be any sort of expert but I’m wondering if a kid did this. I’m wondering myself if I’m nuts but this bomb seems to be something just thrown together. It doesn’t strike me as terribly technical in nature and you can literally go to any store and pick up the materials. People who make bombs past the age I’d say of 17 would have much more technical devices and the confidence to try to make a “homebrew” of explosives. Also, the randomness of the attack. If there’s one word to describe kids it’s “random.” I would guess maybe say 12-17 years old. It’s the age where someone could gain experience with a sodering iron but not the confidence to mix chemicals and just throw things together. That’s what these devices seem like. Thrown together. It’s fun to speculate (pity this is all so horrifying real). Am I nuts?

  16. I have a couple of new thoughts on this, both the brothers were under surveillance, they both had links to extremists from looking at the twitter account, this would definitely be flagged, either they were allowed to go ahead with the bombings with the full knowledge of the authorities or maybe it was a sting that went wrong, as the FBI have several times in the recent past set up radicals who wanted to bomb the U.S, selling them dummy explosives, it could be the many weapons and explosives they had stockpiled which cost many thousands of dollars were sold to them or given to them by undercover agents who the brothers thought were radical islamists, there were Seals on the streets of Boston during the marathon why were they there?, maybe the Brothers lost their surveillance and carried out the bombings which were meant to be stopped?, the FBI would not turn round now and own up to that scenario, but I think it highly unlikely that they would let a bombing go ahead so I think I am sticking with the sting that went wrong, massive intelligence failure whatever the truth.

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