Investigators plugged away Wednesday in the search for the Boston Marathon bomber, or bombers, as they picked through videotape and explosive fragments with an expertise honed on foreign wars and terror attacks.
Amid both progress and chaos, bedeviled at times by inaccurate news reports, investigators were able to reduce the size of the crime scene while they continued to search for debris behind barricades. Boston’s heavily trafficked Boylston Street was reopened, even as investigators scrutinized videotape taken from a nearby Lord & Taylor’s department store that reportedly captured an image of one of the bombs, inside a black bag, being set down.
“The full weight of the federal government is behind this investigation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. “We will find out who did this, we will find out why, and we will bring those responsible to justice.”
President Barack Obama was scheduled to arrive in Boston on Thursday for an interfaith service to honor the victims.
The FBI scheduled a briefing for 5 p.m. Wednesday, but postponed – then subsequently canceled – it, several hours after CNN and some other news agencies, citing anonymous government sources, inaccurately reported that a suspect was in custody. The inaccurate reports prompted considerable scorn across the social media universe, as well a pointed warning from FBI officials that off-base reporting could have “unintended consequences.”
A law enforcement source, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, told McClatchy that the person seen with the bomb in the Lord & Taylor surveillance video was a young male who had not been identified. The source said that the investigation was focused more on domestic terrorism, not foreign, as the source of the attack.
The bombs went off in short succession around 2:50 p.m. Monday near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The blasts killed three, including 8-year-old Martin Richard, and injured at least 176 others. Physicians have performed multiple amputations on victims, whose ages range from as young as 2 to as old as 78.
The dual blasts sent fragments of glass, plastic, metal and other materials rocketing into victims’ bodies, physicians reported Wednesday, with some evidence that the shrapnel included nails and BB-like pellets that might have been deliberately placed inside the weapons to boost their lethality.
“We are not making any judgment about where these fragments came from,” Dr. Peter Burke, chief trauma surgeon at Boston Medical Center, told reporters at a Wednesday morning briefing. “It doesn’t really matter to us. We are just dealing with the consequences of those fragments.”
Boston Medical Center by Wednesday continued to treat 18 of the 19 marathon patients admitted Monday, with two of the patients still in critical condition. At Boston Children’s Hospital, three of 10 marathon patients remained under hospital care Wednesday, including a 2-year-old with a head injury and at 10-year-old in critical condition with multiple leg injuries.
Eleven of the original 35 patients remain at Brigham and Women's Hospital, with four listed in critical condition. Eleven patients remain out of 31 admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital, four of them listed as critical. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center reported having 13 patients remaining out of 24 who were admitted; none are in critical condition.
Investigators already have indicated they believe the bombs were constructed using pressure cookers, a tactic that counterterrorism agencies have found in the past in jihadist plans and “recipes.” The bombs, though lethal, were neither complicated nor difficult to build.
“If you want to do it in a non-alerting fashion, you’d want to be subtle and spread out the purchases of gunpowder, but you could learn how, purchase the materials and construct a bomb like this in an afternoon,” said Scott Stewart, a former special agent with the U.S. State Department and now vice president at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company. “There’s nothing particularly sophisticated about this attack.”
A pressure cooker bomb recipe was included in “The Anarchist Cookbook,” first published in 1971 during the Vietnam War, and more recently it was spelled out in the first issue of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s online magazine, Inspire. Inspire’s instructions were published in a section of the magazine called “Open Source Jihad,” under the title “How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom.”
Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser at the nonpartisan RAND Corp., a policy think tank, said the lack of sophistication usually points to a bomber who learned about bomb-making from books or online.
“The more sophisticated the bombs, the more help someone is likely to have had,” he said. “These bombs were deadly, but they were quite simple. This bomber would not have needed to attend bomb-making classes.”
Jenkins said that such a crude bomb often points to someone acting on a personal grudge, or yearning to be a part of some greater struggle. While many classify such terrorists as “lone wolves,” Jenkins disagrees with the terminology.
“A lone wolf implies strength and single mindedness,” he said. “This sort of attack is more the work of a stray dog.”
Two wars, many casualties and highly motivated research, moreover, have given U.S. officials some of the improvised bomb expertise now being applied to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as some of the medical expertise used in treating patients.
More than 9,000 improvised explosive device attacks were recorded in Afghanistan in 2009, according to the most recent public report of the Defense Department’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. That same year, more than 8,200 IED attacks were recorded in Iraq.
The organization, established in 2006, spent some $3.1 billion last year. Between 2007 and 2010, the organization spent more than $13 billion, with researchers developing anti-bomb tools and techniques carrying names like Blue Fox, Goldie and Subtle Madness.
In a sign of the times, inventors have besieged the Patent and Trademark Office, staking claims on everything from blast-resistant vehicle seats and remote bomb location devices to methods for suppressing radio frequency transmissions often used to set off explosives. One New York inventor received a patent as recently as Tuesday, one day after the Boston bombing, for a new armor system that protects against IEDs, patent office records show.