William Saletan: Boston bombing the tip of the iceberg?

04/21/2013 12:00 AM

04/19/2013 6:47 PM

Every once in a while, a terrorist sets off a fatal bomb in the United States. In 1993, it was at the World Trade Center. In 1995, it was in Oklahoma City. In 1996, it was at the Atlanta Olympics. Last week it was in Boston. Each time it happens, we’re shocked.

But the attacks we see or hear about on TV are just the surface. The FBI is constantly tracking bomb plots. If you look at the bureau’s most recent cases – the ones in which it has announced investigations, arrests, indictments, convictions or sentences since the beginning of 2012 – you’ll discover that during this time frame, Boston was the 21st case involving explosives. And when you study these cases, you realize how lucky we’ve been. The next Boston may not be far behind.

Here are some of the patterns in the FBI case list:

•  Diverse targets. We expect attacks on big, iconic buildings such as the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Some of the recent plots fit that pattern: The perpetrators reportedly targeted or considered targeting the U.S. Capitol, the New York Stock Exchange, Grand Central Terminal, Times Square, the New York Federal Reserve Bank, a federal courthouse and George W. Bush’s home. But others picked softer targets: electrical plants, bridges, synagogues, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, malls and a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Good luck protecting those places.
•  Everyday ingredients. Two plotters connected to al-Qaida used high explosives. But many cases involved common household items (clocks, phones, Christmas lights, auto wire, fishing weights, soda bottles) or chemicals that weren’t inherently suspicious (acetone, hydrogen peroxide, rat poison).
•  Luck. In three of the 20 cases, the plotters had prior contacts with al-Qaida or other known terrorist groups outside the United States. In five other cases, the plotters reached out to fellow jihadists or jihadist wannabes, either online or through other unspecified channels. This seems to be how we infiltrated and disarmed those plots.

One of the 12 remaining cases involved an AWOL soldier, who presumably was a hunted man. Another plotter was a bush-league pipe-bomb maker, apparently for hire. Another case involved a bunch of anarchists who discussed their scheme with one person too many. We were in on those plots, too.

In two cases, the defendants had explosives but no known targets. How did we discover the explosives? Dumb luck. In one case, a guy alarmed his neighbors by shooting at bottles from his back door. When the cops showed up, they found chemicals and devices they recognized, according to an indictment, as bomb components. Another woman shot at two utility workers who ventured onto her property to turn off her water for nonpayment. A search of her home turned up 122 improvised explosive devices.

In five cases, we were at the bombers’ mercy. Two of them, it turned out, were just using the bombs to extort or intimidate. They gave warnings, and their devices were intercepted or disarmed via controlled detonation. The other three bombs went off. One caused an unspecified “permanent bodily injury.” Another blew out the doors of a courthouse, but nobody was around to receive the shrapnel.

Together, the 20 cases tell us several sobering things. First, the Boston Marathon is just the beginning of an expanded target list.

Second, some of the components implicated in Boston – the backpack disguise, the household shrapnel – are common practice. They make it difficult for law enforcement agencies to detect plots and recognize explosive devices before the bombs go off.

Third, bombers are constantly innovating. They want better disguises and bigger blasts.

Fourth, when you look at the 20 cases, you realize that Boston is just the tip of the iceberg.

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