Intelligence: Boston bomb leaves many clues, few answers


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on April 16, 2013 at 6:56 PM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 16 at 7:32 PM

AUSTIN -- A day after the horrific bombing in Boston, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) says one question looms large.

"At this point in time, while it is an act of terrorism, we just don't know whether it was a foreign or domestic attack," McCaul said in an interview Tuesday.

"It would not surprise me in the least for the actual perpetrator in this attack to be an outrider, somebody that we haven't seen before," said former U.S. Department of State counterterrorism official Fred Burton.

Now Vice President of Intelligence at Austin-based Stratfor, Burton says a forensic analysis of the explosive devices used at the Boston Marathon on Monday could yield several clues.

At a media conference late Tuesday afternoon, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that analysis was underway. According to FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers, the investigation thus far has determined the device or devices consisted of nails and ball bearings packed into a pressure cooker, possibly transported to the scene inside a nylon bag.

A 2010 issue of English-language Al Qaeda magazine Inspire includes a step-by-step article titled "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," which described the construction of a similar explosive device using a pressure cooker. A copy of the article was found in the possession of Naser Jason Abdo, an AWOL soldier sentenced to life in prison after plotting to bomb a popular restaurant near Fort Hood, Texas.

Burton says the design is relatively simple and common, employed by many different terrorist organizations and causes over the years. Meanwhile, he suggests the fact that both bombs detonated successfully is noteworthy. It could be a possible sign of some sort of training, practice or bomb-making experience. More information will undoubtedly be obtained as investigation of the Boston bomb materials progresses.

"Whether or not you have a specific bomb maker, the signatures of each will tell," said Burton. "The curious part would be was the bomb maker the actual person that dropped the devices? Or could we be looking at multiple actors here? It's clearly unknown."

While the lack of intelligence indicating a potential threat beforehand may suggest a single individual behind the attack, Burton says a small group of extremely secretive collaborators can't be ruled out.

DesLauriers' public request for any information regarding explosions heard in rural areas is also noteworthy. As Burton explains, a less experienced bomb maker could have manufactured and detonated a series of "test" bombs in order to fine tune the device's design. Such detonations would likely not have been feasible inside a densely population urban area.

"Although the devices were fairly crude and rudimentary, the sophistication of the actual attack, the methodology of the attack was something that was pretty well thought out," Burton furthered.

As far as what the chosen date could reveal about the perpetrators, Burton says that's also a difficult call.

"You look at this week alone, you have the Patriot Day, you have April 15 tax day, you have Israeli National day, you have a whole range of different international dates that come up during this time frame," said Burton.

With the attack methodology pointing toward a planned and calculated effort, Burton suggests a review of surveillance data from the immediate area in the hours and days prior to the attack could yield important evidence.

"He or she had to lurk around the area, had to walk around the area, had to do some degree of reconnaissance. I would be focusing on that," Burton explained.

So how can we be safe?

"There's an investigative posture on this and there's a security posture on this," explained former Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary of Infrastructure Protection Robert Liscouski. "They're tightly linked, because depending upon who we can identify as being responsible for this event, that will dictate what type of security posture we need to be going forward with throughout the United States."

Now with Secure Strategy Group, Liscouski says many of the lessons learned after the September 11th terrorist attack in New York had a clear influence on the event preparations and ultimate response to the Boston Marathon disaster.

"People quickly coalesced around what they had to do," said Liscouski. "People knew what they had to do. There's been a lot more training by local law enforcement and first responders about how to respond to events like this, what to look for."

While securing events like the marathon are logistically difficult, Liscouski says current bomb detection technology is available for those law enforcement agencies that can afford them. Meanwhile, federal budget cuts have hampered bomb detection training programs for local departments as well as overall domestic improvised explosive device (IED) defense efforts.

"There's technologies that need to be put in there," said Liscouski. "We need better policies that can support the budgets for the local law enforcement, and we need to engage the public."