Appetite for Destruction
What does the Boston bomb tells us about the bomber?

Chaos erupts in the moments after the first bomb blast.


Daniel Foster

So what else can we plausibly gather from the nature of the devices? Reports from law enforcement, as well as from attending medical professionals in Boston, confirm that the bombs were filled with ball bearings, pellets, and/or “nail-like” objects. More shrapnel. As Representative Steve Lynch (D., Mass.) put it, “This is not a device like Oklahoma City. . . . That was to bring the building down. The ball bearings are meant as antipersonnel munitions. They’re trying to cause carnage here.”

The closest recent domestic parallel might then be the Olympic bombing in Atlanta in 1996. That device, planted by Eric Robert Rudolph under a park bench in a busy public space, was built around similar principles, using hundreds of nails to generate shrapnel and steel sheathing in an attempt to focus the blast. The casualty numbers were similar: two dead, 111 wounded for the ’96 blast; three dead and 170 wounded and counting for the Boston blast.

But that might be where the similarities end. Rudolph was an American, and a “lone wolf,” and he claimed the attack was directed at the government and the international order, as represented by the Olympics, for their complicity in abortion. His stated intent was to force the U.S. to call off the Olympics and to direct international attention to his issue. But while his rhetoric suggested the “old school” terrorism that afflicted the U.S. and Europe during the Cold War — symbolic target, explicit political goal, relatively low body counts — his method prefigured the “new terrorism” ushered in by 9/11 — terrorism as attrition, attacks designed to maximize casualties, etc.

What can we conclude about the Boston attack? On the one hand, it has been suggested that the devices may have been set to detonate roughly in the “middle” of the marathon, when about half the runners had crossed the finish line. But if mass casualties had been the objective, the bomber(s) would have done better to time the attack for when the top runners came across the finish line (at about noon, rather than 3 p.m.) and the crowds were far denser.

Then there is the issue of credit. When foreign networks have a hand in acts of terror perpetrated in the U.S., they have been eager to claim credit for them. That there have been only denials and silence on Boston thus far is a piece of highly, highly circumstantial evidence that the perpetrator was an American or a Shahzad/Nidal Hasan–style free agent acting with the spiritual backing, but not material support, of a foreign group.

Twenty-four hours after the attack, it’s still anybody’s guess who is behind it — which the president implicitly acknowledged in his second public statement on Tuesday. What we’ve learned about the explosive device doesn’t change that. The only thing we know for sure about the bomb is that it was intended to kill. The only thing we know for sure about the bomber is that he is a killer.

— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.