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:
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.