The Bombs Before Boston
Explosive technology and historical reality
In 2012, Lieutenant General Michael Barbero warned in Congressional testimony that improvised explosive devices, long the scourge of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, now demanded attention from authorities at home. Barbero, who heads the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), explained that already, an FBI investigation unraveled a former Iraqi insurgent’s plot to set off roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. That plot failed, but with an abundance of technical knowledge and supplies, and the inherent limits of preventive law enforcement, a successful attack was sure to come.
The two bombs which killed three and injured hundreds near the Boston Marathon finish line were proof of this, or at least its technical implications. They were pressure cooker bombs, simple devices with a long history in improvised bomb-making. Their design enhanced the lethal effects of low explosives which merely deflagrate - that is, burn - rather than detonate. Low explosives such as black powder are relatively simple to use, less hazardous to an unskilled bomb-maker, and far less likely to attract investigative scrutiny than regulated and monitored compounds such as commercial grade demolition charges or the infamous fertilizer bomb which devastated Oklahoma City.
We do not know for sure whether Tamerlan or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev learned to build these devices from an Inspire magazine article or through yet-undiscovered facilitating networks. Perhaps of greater concern is that, technically and logistically speaking, two young men probably do not need to travel to foreign battlefields nor read an al Qaeda magazine to make similar devices. A careful reading of the Anarchist Cookbook, adequate command of a search engine, or a knowledge of some basic physics and chemistry would suffice. No organization or ideology possesses a monopoly on this knowledge. A white supremacist or radical anarchist faces no real handicap to replicating this feat.
The means are present, and the basic knowledge is more accessible than ever before. So while it will take a federal investigation to unravel why it did happen in Boston, we could as easily ask why not so many places besides Boston? What measures will the United States law enforcement and intelligence communities take to prevent a similar attack?
The growth of the modern American security state and terrorist bombings are closely intertwined. In 1919, anarchists following the ideology of Italian radical Luigi Galleani sent out dozens of mail bombs to politicians, judges, and economic elites, and then set off larger bombs in several U.S. cities within less than two hours of each other just weeks later. In response, the U.S. rounded up thousands of suspected anarchists and political radicals, detaining many and deporting immigrants caught in the sweep.
The next year, suspected Galleanist followers detonated a horse-drawn cart of explosives in Wall Street, killing 38. While the gangland warfare of Prohibition went on to overshadow these bombings and the Red Scare they helped fuel, the modern FBI saw them as predecessors to modern efforts to use intelligence-driven investigations and joint, government-wide counterterrorism efforts. So too, though, do they foreshadow the less glamorous aspects of responses to terrorism - alarmism and xenophobia towards a movement interlinked with distrusted immigrants, and the potential for abusing government power which followed from such a political climate.
Despite some parallels, it would be a mistake to conflate modern bombings and domestic terrorism as a new peak not seen since the beginning of the last century. Though counterterrorism and concern about bombings certainly captures a great deal of attention from the public and policymakers both, just decades ago, explosive terrorism was a vastly more regular feature of American life.
As Dave Gilson at Mother Jones points out, terrorist bombing and attempted bombing is actually far less a prominent feature of American politics than it was merely decades ago. The frequent use was not simply terrorist groups such as the radical left Weather Underground, either. In the 1970s, bombs, especially car bombs, became an infamous weapon of battling mobsters in Cleveland. Committed ideologues and criminals both employed or sought to employ explosives in enormous numbers.
This was all despite higher barriers to disseminating technical knowledge and lower availability of cheap and reliable electronics for more sophisticated remote command devices. Not only that, but today’s many advances in technology to detect and safely defuse or destroy explosive devices was unavailable, and far less widely distributed among local law enforcement.
Government response, though, explains more than just the sophisticated new technologies and the proliferation of dedicated, professional bomb squads. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, whose work regulating explosives was in its infancy in the 1970s, along with expansive legal regulations and partnerships across the law enforcement community, possess greater sway over the dissemination of commercial explosives and precursors. Al Qaeda’s first attack on the World Trade Center and the horrific Oklahoma City bombing also directed more investigative efforts against individuals and groups seeking to conduct terrorist bombings.
Of course, simple explosives such as those the Tsarnaev brothers detonated in Boston hardly require sophisticated material. Keeping track of low explosives and even crude high explosives, which even inexperienced bombmakers can gain access to through readily available commercial precursors, fireworks, and ammunition, would be a daunting task. Indeed, the relatively low incidence of bombings suggest diminishing returns on expanding the scope of existing regulations. In the race between would-be bombers and the authorities, new technology seems to have enhanced, rather than weakened, the state’s ability to detect, deter, and defeat criminals and terrorists.
This phenomenon is not unique to explosives, either. Mass shootings, whether politically-motivated or not, highlight the wide availability of firearms in the United States and their potential use in terrorist attacks and horrific acts of violence. Again, at first glance, considering technological availability and recent publicity suggest a rising and unprecedented danger. Yet the statistics on mass shootings (and gun crime generally) suggest that mass shootings are neither at new heights nor an unprecedented rise. Increases in gun ownership remain concentrated among prior gun owners, while the overall share of households with firearms continues to decline.
Technologies cannot fully impart wills of their own on society. While they shape the choices that we make, so too does our broader social, political, and economic environment shape the ways in which we are able to use technology. The U.S., with more firearms per capita than Yemen, and the widespread availability of commercial goods and communications technology to supply aspiring bombmakers, suffers relatively little domestic terrorism, especially compared to past episodes of American history.
While we fear “lone nuts” or malefactors with seemingly little or no support networks, it seems not many will answer calls to rise up with little more than a banner and internet forum goers in support - or at least far fewer than might feasibly be able to, given the tools within reach. An insurrectionist wave needs more than inspiration and how-to guides. Networks provide the social glue that gives political ideology greater force, meaning, and resources. They allow a movement’s followers not simply to receive tactics, techniques, and procedures, but to retain, refine, and disseminate them with further improvement. The brute technical means of inflicting violence provide just a small part of a true believer’s opportunity, ability, and motives.
As we ponder the role a panoply of emerging and evolving technologies will play in the security and politics of everyday life, it is worth remembering, with the technologies that exist, what has already happened, and what isn’t happening. The allure and anxiety of novelty are inextricable from technology, especially insofar as it shapes our safety and privacy. Widening our scope beyond the Promethean possibilities that technology poses, and considering also the historical precedents and human prerequisites that foretell, constrain, and shape its future use, is a necessary part of ensuring our response to tragedy is not undue terror.