The day after the Boston Marathon bombing, President Obama called it an “act of terrorism.” What kind of terrorism, no one was ready to say — a caution that derives from years of wrongful speculation that has on occasion ruined innocent lives.
In the moments after the attack Monday that killed three people and injured scores more, Obama refrained from using the word “terrorism.” He did use it Tuesday, but wrapped it deep in caveats.
“Given what we now know about what took place, the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism,” he said in a White House briefing. “Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terror. What we don’t yet know, however, is who carried out this attack, or why; whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic; or was the act of a malevolent individual. That’s what we don’t yet know.”
Jewish groups and officials who track such incidents took the same tack, declining to engage in conjecture given the limited information about the attack.
“We know that unfortunately 30 percent of terrorist attacks had Jewish institutions as secondary targets,” said Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, the security arm of the national Jewish community. “However, I must stress that there is absolutely nothing here that indicates any connection to an attack on the Jewish community. But based on history, we are standing vigilant for at least the next 48 hours.”
Over the last year, evidence has emerged that Hizbullah and others acting on behalf of Iran have stepped up plans to attack Jewish and Israeli targets, partially in response to increased pressure on Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program. There has also been evidence since Obama’s 2008 election of intensified domestic violence by anti-government and white supremacist groups.
The Anti-Defamation League, in an April 8 security bulletin, noted that the week of April 20 — Hitler’s birthday — is a period of heightened alert due to the history of right-wing violence that coincides with it, including the April 19, 1993, storming of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Tex., and the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing.
“As a consequence of these anniversaries and the symbolism and significance of these dates, anti-government extremist groups, such as militia groups, may target April 19,” the ADL said. “Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups have a history of staging events on or close to April 20.”
The low-tech nature of the device — a “pressure cooker” device that propels shrapnel upon explosion — suggests the attacker was not part of a sophisticated network, said David Schanzer, a terrorism expert at Duke University.
“The only thing we do know is the amount of damage and destruction and power these bombs have. It was a successful bomb but it didn’t bring the buildings down,” Schanzer said. “That tells you something about the bomber and the types of materials used. If a group was determined and capable of planting a bomb in this particular spot, it would want to use the most sophisticated bomb they were capable of creating.”
Schanzer was careful to qualify even that insight, saying that there were some scenarios in which a sophisticated group might consider using a crude device. Such caution derives from multiple speculations over the years that have ultimately embarrassed their purveyors and in some cases had dire consequences. Some experts at first blamed the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing on Muslim extremists, though it was in fact carried out by anti-government groups. Law enforcement authorities leaked the name of Richard Jewell, a private security guard, as a person of interest after the 1996 bombing attack at the Atlanta Olympics. Though Jewell was ultimately vindicated, he spent the rest of his life trying to regain a semblance of normalcy.
Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst who now directs the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s counterterrorism project, said he expected more information would soon become available. Agents were scouring the bombing area for DNA and reviewing the wealth of video likely collected by hundreds of marathon watchers.
“When something does go boom, there’s no one better than the FBI at this,” Levitt said. “There’s a tremendous number of people working on this all over the world.”