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Boston Marathon attack: Circle of possible bombers narrows, experts say (+video)

Experts who follow radical groups inside the US look at emerging details about the Boston Marathon attack and see the work of a domestic operative – either American jihadi or antigovernment extremist. 

By Staff writer / April 16, 2013

Attendees at a candlelight vigil on Boston Common sign a banner that says 'Boston, you're our home,' April 16. Messages include 'Love always wins,' 'Boston Strong,' 'Peace to All,' and 'One awesome city!!' Hundreds of people attended the vigil.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Details emerging from the Boston Marathon bombing so far suggest that the perpetrators are most likely to be identified as American jihadis or, possibly but less likely, antigovernment extremists, say counterterrorism experts.

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Investigators have not offered any information about potential suspects and are still seeking tips and video from the public. Yet several experts who follow radical groups inside the US say the timing of the attack, the choice of weapon, the target, and the venue are all suggestive. Those things together are beginning to triangulate toward a small set of possible perpetrators, and, as is often the case, the weapon is key.

Two common pressure cookers packed with nails, ball bearings, and explosives were each rigged to a timer and used as a bomb, the FBI confirmed Tuesday. The two bombs exploded a block from each other 13 seconds apart at 2:50 p.m. – more than two hours after the winners of the marathon crossed the finish line.

The crude but effective bombs reinforce the views of several analysts who suggest that the blasts point to a lone-wolf-style attack. That could include one or two conspirators, but in any case would be an effort that is home grown and not the work of a tightly orchestrated, top-down directive from a central authority. These bombs could have been built by anyone with access to the Internet, motivation, and a place to test such a device in advance.

“We’ll know for sure when we get the forensic evidence on these pressure cookers,” says Alexia Ash, head of North America forecasting for IHS Exclusive Analysis Ltd., a specialist intelligence company. “But at this point what we are potentially talking about is really just one or two types of individuals or small groups – both are home-grown terrorists, either home-grown Islamic jihadists or right-wing extremists.”

The target – everyday Americans – may be instructive, too. The goal was mass casualties and a bloody spectacle in front of a big international television audience – a modus operandi consistent with past terrorist attempts by US-based right-wing and home-grown Islamic extremists, say Ms. Ash and other experts.

But the high-profile TV spectacle is more consistently a feature of jihadi aspirations – and on this point, experts who track both groups independently begin to discount the possibility that US right-wing extremists are behind the Boston attack.

“One thing that sticks out pretty quick is how these bombs were positioned so that those explosions would be in full view of the cameras,” says James J.F. Forest, director of the graduate program in security studies at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. “They knew in advance which way the cameras would be pointing. International terrorists of the Al Qaeda variety definitely look for that, while we don’t see that among the right-wing domestic terrorists.”

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

 
 
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