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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Boston Blast: Terrorist Or Not?

The story of the Boston Marathon atrocity is still unfolding. Right now, it looks like there are three dead--including an 8 year old boy--and many, many injured. Some gravely. Perhaps we got lucky: apparently there were additional devices that did not explode and it surely could have been worse. John Hinderaker (Power Line) notes that while people did flee in the immediate moments following of the explosions many of the runners crossed the finish line and continued on to the hospitals to help with the wounded or donate blood. He notes that even in the uncertain smoke-filled, blood-soaked aftermath there were many civilians as well as police running "towards the sounds of the guns" to help their fellow Americans.
Many of these were professionals. The finish line of a marathon is a fortuitous spot to bomb, in that doctors, policemen, ambulances and so on are stationed there. Some soldiers happened to be on hand. But others were not professionals. Many just helped out, bravely, wherever they could.
We didn't all "come together:" Bill O'Rilley criticized Obama for not using strong enough language (he did not use the word terrorism--which probably makes the Benghazi folks feel trolled). InfoWars goes straight to the point asking "Who Do They Plan To Blame?"
The unaware and na├»ve will state that “They will blame the true culprit behind the attack, of course!” Unfortunately, in the past couple decades I have seen numerous terrorist attacks where the blame was NOT placed on the true culprit, or, the blame was extended to totally uninvolved groups and organizations in order to politicize the event. Governments (especially our government) squeeze each man-made disaster like a ripe papaya until every drop of sweet advantage can be collected.
And they ask: Is This The Moral Equivalent Of Drone Strikes? Slate, on the other hand, weighs in with some good, solid advice about how to act in the still-early hours: the media will get much of the story wrong, we should not jump to conclusions (especially vile, racist ones), and we should hold off passing along speculation  until things are confirmed. Also: hold off on clever tweets.

It's A Gosnell Dig (If You Don't Know What That Is, It's Because Of The Media Black Out--but You're Probably Happier For It)
Omnivorous Analysis
I am not a terrorism expert--and, although I have had Military Intelligence training, I am not qualified to expertly diagnose this attack from thousands of miles away--however, I would like to point out a few things and so I'm going to engage in my own speculation and analysis with the explicit caveat that repeating anything I've said is dicey. While I have tried my best to keep my facts straight, even some of the major-league news sources may have gotten things wrong at this stage.

Analysis: I do no think this is external Islamic terrorism. I believe the choice of the Boston Marathon is opportunistic and the date/place is, likely, not important symbolically (I do not think this is a 'tea party' tax-day protest).

Why?

What Do We Know?
We know that this happened in Boston on April 15th, the day of the Boston Marathon. We know that the bombs were relatively small in size (compared to, say, massive car-bombs). No one credible in the international world has claimed credit (so far as I know, no one at all has).

What Does This Mean: Terror attacks usually have symbolic meanings beyond the dollar-value of damage and loss of life they cause. One of the reasons why the American heartland has not been struck despite it being much worse defended than New York City is because the "terrorist street cred" doesn't extend past the East Coast. If you hit NYC, you're a hero. If you blow up St. Louis, they're going "where's that!?"

I do not think the choice of Boston or the event of the marathon is likely to be a target for Islamic terror. 

Something has been made of the fact that April 15th is "Tax Day" and Boston has a mythological position in the history of American Taxation (the, erm, Boston Tea Party). I, again, do not place too much stock in this coincidence: I think it is more important that the marathon was held on April 15th in Boston rather than the other way around ("Gee, guys, we have to hit something in Boston on April 15th ... inn' there some kind of running event?").

In short, I think the smart money is that whatever the ultimate motives of the bombers, the choice of the date was picked because of the marathon and not because of its historical significance.

A final conclusion from what we know: If this were an act of Jihad there would have been Public Relations immediately after the event. For a foreign actor there is simply no reason not to take credit: enough bombs detonated that this was not an embarrassment. Islamic terror acts are conducted with planing after the event to gain media cycles. The machinery would have been in place.

What Do We Think We Know?
If you want to get on StratFor's mailing list you can get their (short) article analyzing the explosives. They know what everyone else knows: they were small, likely used plastic explosive, there were three or four of them, and not all of them went off (they note a lack of broken windows speaking to the relatively small size). Their conclusion: these are the kinds of bombs almost anyone could build. They require no special knowledge or infrastructure. They could be hidden in backpacks or almost any other container.

A Counter Terrorism Expert calls the bombing "Madrid-Style." He notes that:
  • The timing was done for maximum traffic in the area.
  • There were probably several bombers (he estimates "two")
  • There were many, many cameras in the area--we should get footage.
  • Someone posing as a helper or audience member could have "easily fooled" security personnel
I do not think much of this analysis--especially since the bombings in Madrid killed almost 200 people and wounded almost 2000. They used far more actors and were far more coordinated. This hit more or less one area with small bombs, outdoors, and with minimal "coordination."

What Does This Mean: The takeaway, however, is that this bombing is a low-skill, low-investment attack on a porous and densely packed event. In short, the choice of the Boston Marathon may well have been ideal for a small group of inexpert actors with small explosions. There is no reason to suspect a large support network or elite training was involved.

Conclusions
We'll know more in a few days as events unravel (especially footage) and the narrowed suspect list. Until then, I would be leery of any speculation--especially the above. I think that a key thing that we know is something we are not seeing: the press-release. It makes no sense to blow a lot of people up without issuing some kind of statement. Even individual actors of questionable sanity like the Unabomber issued manifestos. 

Why haven't we seen one? My best guess is that the actors are right now going to ground and are reluctant to release anything that would further give them away. The American post-9/11 security apparatus is like an iceberg: for every part you see (TSA agents groping you) there is a lot you don't see (NSA Signal Intelligence). These guys may have heat on them already.

At least I hope that's the case.

My prayers to everyone in Boston or otherwise involved. May they recover ... and may we do justice to the perpetrators.

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