Boston Bomb Speculation: Why Wait?
Sometimes a War Nerd’s job is to make a dumb early guess. This is one of those times. It’s slightly more than 24 hours since two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and although the smart thing would be to wait, I’ll place my bet in time for tonight’s issue of NSFWCORP, not because I think I have all the answers but because, well, Vato’s just tryna do ’is pinchy job.
The one thing I knew immediately was the kind of bomb they used. Thanks to all the news crews and relatives filming at the finish line, there were plenty of videos, including a few shot from the middle of the street just past the finish line.
One of those videos, from the Boston Globe, immediately tells you what kind of bomb was involved. What you see is a big, smoky explosion way back on the sidewalk, just as dozens of runners were trotting past. Most of those runners kept going for a few steps, not even noticing that anything had happened. But one of them, who’s actually further from the blast than others, falls instantly.
That’s the classic, random killing of a homemade shrapnel bomb. With these bombs, it’s not the blast that kills, it’s the metal fragments. Blast, in itself, isn’t a good killer. Anti-personnel bombs are more like 360-degree shotguns than blasts, actually. The blast was small enough that it didn’t even make most of the runners stumble, but one of them was unlucky enough to stop a metal fragment — could’ve been anything. So far they’ve found nails, ball bearings, and pellets.
You can tell the bomb was at ground level, because most of the injuries were to the legs, especially below the knee. The latest I’ve heard is that the two bombs were in duffel bags laid on the sidewalk. That makes sense, though you have to assume a lot of what you hear in the hours after the blast is wrong. Last night everybody was reporting that five undetonated bombs were found around Boston. That seems to have been totally untrue. Then there was the story about the Saudi tackled on the street for “acting suspicious.” At the moment, nobody’s hinting that he’s a suspect, and he’d have to be very stupid to stand in the kill zone of his own bomb.
There are stupid bombers, but this bombing doesn’t look like it was done by amateurs. It had the classic two-part structure used by the IRA against the 2nd Paras back in 1979 in revenge for Bloody Sunday (“14 dead but not forgotten/We got 18 and Lord Mountbatten”). The first bomb is supposed to stampede the survivors into the kill zone of the second bomb.
There was only a ten-second delay between the first and second bombs in Boston, though, so they may have been intended to go off simultaneously. The truth is, you didn’t need any special timing or strategy to bomb the finish line of the world’s most famous marathon. You could count on there being a huge number of runners and spectators around the finish line for hours after the world-class marathoners came through. And it would be an elite crowd, too. Distance running has a very impressive demographic.
In fact, the idea of bombing a marathon is so obvious it was part of the plot of a Chris Morris movie, “Four Lions.” This movie, which was very good but a little too grim to be popular, follows four idiot jihadis from Northern England —three second-generation Pakistanis and an ex-skinhead white convert — while they stumble through their plan to blow something up. They end up picking the London Marathon because even these doofuses realize that there’ll be huge crowds at a certain place and time, in all kinds of costumes. In fact, the four jihadi stooges use the tradition by infiltrating the race in rented corporate mascot costumes stuffed with gelignite.
Of course the plan doesn’t work out exactly as they planned — that would’ve been too dark even for Chris Morris — but there it is, the whole plan on screen years before this happened. It’s possible the Boston bombers got the idea from “Four Lions,” but it would’ve occurred to somebody sooner or later anyway. It’s too perfect a target to miss.
But the target does hint at something about the bomber(s). Here’s where I stop talking about what I know, and start the highly-unwise guesses that it’s my job to make. In the hours after the bombs went off, everybody on Twitter started guessing and even hoping, almost praying, that their pet hate group would turn out to be guilty.
There were three main theories, if you can call them that, circulating yesterday. I’ll start with our village idiot, Alex Jones. Here’s what he tweeted:
Our hearts go out to those that are hurt or killed #Boston marathon - but this thing stinks to high heaven #falseflag— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) April 15, 2013
See? This is the classic America-centric thinking that defined reactions from the far left to the far right: It can’t have been anybody from outside because us Americans control everything. So, according to Alex, the FBI is behind every single bombing in the US.
Alex Jones is an idiot. OK? If he says it’s sunny out, wear your galoshes. On to Theory #2
This was the view, held by most mainstream right wingers, that it was those goddamned Muslims/Arabs (they’re not clear on the difference). Fox’s Erik Rush even tweeted that we should kill ’em all.
That wasn’t surprising. He’s Fox, whaddaya expect? What was kind of surprising was Theory #3, expressed in a flood of tweets from leftist Americans desperately hoping and praying that the bomber was a white male American, another Tim McVeigh. It’s an interesting phenom, this response, actually hoping that it was one of your own (because nearly every one of the people tweeting their hope that it was a white male American were…uh, white male Americans).
This wasn’t just liberal self-hate, though there was definitely some of that going on. What really pushed people into blaming the bombs instantly on some militia type is the old American habit of believing we’re the only real, actual, effective people in the world, and that our priorities are the only ones that matter. It had to be an American because they don’t want to feel any hostility toward Muslims; because it would make them happy to think it was some hick Tim McVeigh; and also because the American left, just like the American right, thinks we’re the only real people in the world, so we must be behind it somehow.
The people pushing this theory kept pointing out that this year, the Boston Marathon was run on April 15, income tax day and Patriots’ Day. True, but the world’s been around a long time, and every damn day is the anniversary of something. April 15 is the anniversary of Formigny, a battle in 1450, in which the French wiped out an English army--but that doesn’t mean French nationalists were behind the Boston bombs.
And I doubt that rightwing extremist Americans did it either. For one thing, this talk about the coincidence of dates —tax day, Patriots’ Day —doesn’t sound very likely. I don’t think the bombing had anything to do with Patriots’ Day or tax day, or Formigny for that matter.
That’s just classic American self-centeredness, assuming everybody knows and cares about a couple of our most obscure local holidays. (To be honest, I’d never even heard of Patriots’ Day, and I was, as the man said, born in the US of A.) My guess is that the people who planted these bombs never heard of either of those holidays. The date was significant for one thing: It was the announced, publicized, internationally famous date of the Boston Marathon, when you could count on a huge number of unsuspecting, upper-middle class targets hanging around Copley Square. That’s the only important fact about the date.
The other reason I doubt the McVeigh theory is a vague one, not something I can prove, just something that, to me at least, tilts the probabilities away from a domestic group: geography. Weird as it may seem, right-wing American irregulars tend to attack on ground they consider theirs, aiming to kill alien influences. The territory they consider worth saving is usually South, the inland West, and the Sun Belt — but definitely not Boston. Massachussets is long since lost, as far as they’re concerned. Look at the biggest right-wing terror attacks: Oklahoma City, 1995; Atlanta, 1996; Knoxville (Unitarian Church) 2008; Wichita, KS (George Tiller shooting), 2009. Oklahoma, Georgia, Tennessee — those are all hardcore red states, and the right-wingers who attacked in those places aimed at alien, blue-state institutions: Federal employees, abortionists, and Unitarians, those Satanically broadminded bastards.
When the McVeigh types do strike at a target in the blue states, it’s usually one obviously linked to their pet hates, like when that 88-year old Nazi shot a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in DC in 2009.
As far as I know, the American right-wing nuts have nothing against marathons. In fact, those Nazi-influenced guys tend to be fitness freaks, at least in theory. The marathon is an American tradition, not linked to anything those freaks see as alien influences. It’s probably the one thing in Boston they’d approve of, and it would take somebody even crazier and dumber than McVeigh to target spectators at the finish line. Even if a right-winger did decide to strike an American sporting event, it’d be something like a Lakers game — all those African-American millionaires on court, all those Hollywood elitists in the stands. The crowd at the Marathon was overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class — not the kind of people who anger up the blood of the Tim McVeighs among us.
That’s all I’ve got to refute the McVeigh thesis, and it’s not much. So I’ll check out the bomb and see if it has any clues about the bomber. This was a pressure-cooker bomb, very low-tech, easy to make. In itself, that doesn’t help. But there’s one place where pressure-cooker bombs are very popular: Pakistan. Pressure cookers are very common all over the Subcontinent, easy to carry around without attracting attention. They’ve been used for years as bombs. In 2010, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant, used a pressure-cooker bomb along with a half-dozen DIY devices powered with homemade fertilizer and firecracker to try to blow up Times Square. He failed, but he was your proverbial lone wolf, putting it all together at home in Bridgeport, CT.
In South Asia, pressure-cooker bombs have been used much more effectively. They’re like XL pipe bombs, but much more effective because the huge circumference of the container allows you to pack more explosive and line a much bigger area of the exterior with metal fragments.
The deadliest pressure-cooker bombs were the ones used to blast crowded trains carrying people home from work in Mumbai on the evening of July 11, 2006, when 209 commuters were killed, and almost a thousand wounded. The bombers were LeT, a huge Pakistani organization protected by the intelligence service, the ISI, and used mostly to attack India. LeT had help from a domestic Indian Muslim group called the Indian Mujahedeen, and probably had help from the ISI itself.
I’m not saying the Boston bombs were LeT. I’m pretty sure they weren’t. But I’m going to guess they have a Pakistani connection. Pakistan’s urban guerrilla (or “terrorist,” if you want) groups are huge, and unlike Al Qaeda they’ve been left pretty much alone until recently. There’s a group for any target you want. If you want to kill some Pakistani Shi’a, for being Shi’a, you join one of the groups that specializing in shooting up Shi’a mosques, like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the group that’s currently massacring Shi’a Hazara in Quetta, as I explained in this column a few weeks ago but if you don’t like the LeJ anthem or insignia, you have other choices, like Sipah-e-Sabaha.
Or suppose you have other priorities, like killing Hindus, or just anybody from India. There’s a lot of that kind of feeling in Pakistan right now, because Pakistan is going to Hell real fast while its old rival, India, is zooming ahead. Besides, killing Indians is looked on with a special tenderness by the ISI, so there are plenty of groups going in for it, like Jaish-e-Muhamad and the biggest, baddest and most pampered of all, Laish-e-Taiba, the guys who sent the suicide squad to Mumbai in 2008.
It’s not likely these groups planted the bombs in Boston. I’m just trying to give you an idea of what an insanely scary place Pakistan has become since Zia, with CIA help, decided to “Islamize” the country in 1979.
My guess, and again it’s just a wild guess, is that these bombs came from one of the groups focused on long-range urban-violence projection, which narrows it down to about a dozen units. Seriously, there are at least that many groups in Pakistan eager to pull off something like this, and unlike Al Qaeda, they’ve had a decade of very soft treatment at the hands of the ISI, time to grow the franchise, as it were.
And they’ve been getting very angry with the US for years, because US drones keep picking off their leaders in the FATA, the tribal area in NW Pakistan, which used to be a safe haven for them. The drones work, and they work at a tiny fraction of the cost of fighters, which is why a very weird network of unnatural allies from the far right and far left hate ’em. The Pakistani Taliban, the TTP, has especially good reason to hate those drones and the people who sent them, because their leader, Mehsud, was killed in a drone attack in early January, 2013.
The drone attacks are very effective but very insulting, strange as that sounds. It’s much more infuriating to be killed by an unmanned machine orbiting over your village than to be shot in combat. It’s the way you’d kill a bug, and it’s created a deep hatred in the FATA.
The TTP was among the first groups to deny it had anything to do with the Boston bombs, which can mean anything or nothing. It could even mean they really didn’t do it. But if they didn’t, there are plenty of other groups living under ISI protection that could have. And the ISI is not likely to be concerned with protecting its American frenemies, especially since the insult of killing Osama bin Laden on Pakistani territory and pointedly not informing the ISI we were planning the hit. These things are hard for the ISI to take, because even those frickin’ maniacs have their sensitivities, and when their little-kid feelings are hurt, they make sure somebody else feels it.
There are two other groups I’d say are more likely suspects than the TTP itself. One is the Haqqani Network, which operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, working with the TTP when they feel like it but with plenty of connections on their own. The Haqqani might be a little too backwoodsy, a little too Pashtun-hick-ish, to handle the Boston bombings, which leaves the Punjabi Taliban, a new (meaning not-yet-decimated) hardcore group with deep roots in the Punjabi community in Pakistan. Those are sophisticated, urban people who would have no trouble infiltrating.
All I have is what I learned from Perry Mason: motive, means, opportunity. Al Qaeda and the Arab-dominated groups have been decimated and are devolving into local insurgents, as you saw in Mali.
By contrast, the Pakistani groups are huge, well-funded, experienced with American procedure (old pals with our friends in Langley), protected by a powerful state, and perfectly placed to take the lead among all the world’s jihadis.
That’s my best guess, and that’s all it is: a guess.