What We Know (and What We Don’t) About the Boston Marathon Bombings

By Joe Young

In the days since the Boston bombings, rumors and speculation abound. As we wrote immediately after the bombing, the fog of war is thick and what we know will update dynamically. On Tuesday night, I taught my domestic political violence course. In the class, I had students outline what we know for sure, what evidence supports this knowledge, and what is merely speculative.1 Let’s do a miniature version of that exercise here.

What we know

There were two bombs. Each was fairly simple to make, constructed from pressure cookers packed with nails, shards of metal, and ball bearings. The bombs were detonated 12 seconds apart at 2:50 pm on Monday. One of them was placed in a heavy black backpack.

Three people are dead, over 170 are injured. Many have ghastly injuries. Debris was found on rooftops, including a piece of one of the bombs. Inspire magazine, an English-language magazine produced by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, detailed how to make such a bomb in the kitchen of your mom. They have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Erica Chenoweth outlined, this was an act intended to maim and scare. The bomber(s) knew that the world was watching and that people would die. The bomber(s) walked away and did not commit suicide. No one has yet claimed credit.2 While groups in the past have often claimed credit for attacks, this phenomena is declining.3 Additionally, claiming an attack might occur weeks or months later — although the US intelligence community knew Al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11, Bin Laden did not take official credit for the attacks until years later.4

What this means

The FBI just (5 pm EST, in the middle of me writing this) released images of two suspects of interest. Not surprising from what we know about crime and violence, they are young men. It is quite likely that this attack involved just a few people, or maybe even one.

The bombs had timing devices and could have been placed by a single person, although the FBI seemed more certain about multiple perpetrators. These people are unlikely to be connected to core Al-Qaeda, as the attack would have likely been a suicide mission. Also, our intelligence services had no warning, suggesting a few domestic perpetrators and not a wider conspiracy.

As I outlined before, we are close to some important dates for extreme members of the patriot movement. It could also be someone inspired by radical Islam but unconnected to Al-Qaeda or its affiliates in any meaningful way (see the Fort Hood Shooter). The evidence for an Al-Qaeda connection is related to the bomb, but this would assume that other extremists don’t use the internet or never saw the Inspire piece. Or it could be someone with another grievance unrelated to either movements, such as the Unabomber, or someone with a revenge motive, such as Chris Dorner. We cannot say for certain.

Often the aftermath of tragic events like as 9/11 and now 4/15 is selected by copycats and others as a good time to express themselves. The ricin letters immediately invoked comparisons to the anthrax-tainted letters after 9/11.

Finally, there is one last thing we know. The perpetrator(s) will likely be found. Timothy McVeigh, Osama Bin Laden, Ramzi Yousef, Eric Rudolph, and others were all eventually caught. It may take days, weeks, months or even a decade. One notable bombing, what some have argued is the first car bomb, was never officially solved. The bombing of Wall Street in 1920 was attributed to an Italian anarchist, but he was never apprehended or convicted.

1 One of the students in the course ran the marathon, finished early, and while not injured was affected by the bomb.

2 See Aaron Hoffman’s recent Journal of Peace Research piece for an academic treatment of the issue.

3 Bruce Hoffman cites a Rand Report from 1985 that states 39% of transnational attacks in the 1970s went unclaimed.

4 Zawahiri claimed credit a few months after.

1 comment
  1. Things are moving fast now. Two brothers captured. Looks amateurish. From Caucus region, but lived in the US for at least a few years. Michael Tracy, on twitter, suggests “robbing a 7-11 during an international manhunt gives weight to the “couple of knuckleheads” theory.” Cullen Hendrix sent me this, http://deadspin.com/heres-everything-we-know-about-tamerlan-tsarnaev-the-476415081, suggesting that the older brother was a bit maladjusted, again supporting a Columbine meets Faisal Shazad type explanation for motive. Given the pace of info, we should have a much better idea soon.

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