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Boston Marathon bombs made with pressure cookers: Big break in case?

Reports suggest that the devices in the Boston Marathon bombings were put in pressure cookers. That suggests the bombs were unsophisticated, but experts warn against rushing to judgment.

By Staff writer / April 16, 2013

Officials take crime scene photos a day after two explosions hit the Boston Marathon in Boston Monday.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters



The explosive devices used in the Boston Marathon bombings, as well as the crime scene itself, will be the “epicenter” of the massive investigation into who carried out Monday’s deadly attack.

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But information that the bombs reveal might not be enough to crack the case, and could even lead in wrong directions or to mistaken conclusions. Given the lack of any intelligence leading up to the marathon suggesting that an attack might be imminent, experts suggest that investigators will have to be particularly patient and painstaking, despite the national desire for a quick break in the case.

By Tuesday afternoon, for example, investigators said that pressure cookers had been used to encase the explosive devices – a rather crude method of construction that might suggest the involvement of an amateur "lone wolf" or point in the direction of domestic extremists.

But Islamist extremists in France tried to use pressure cookers last year in what officials there said could have been the biggest terror attack on French soil in years, until it was foiled. Likewise, US Army Pfc. Naser Abdo, who was convicted in 2012 of plotting to bomb a Texas restaurant where Fort Hood soldiers regularly ate, got the recipe for a pressure cooker bomb from an Al Qaeda website.

As far back as 2004, the US Department of Homeland Security was warning about pressure cooker bombs. In 2010, it issued an advisory warning about the use of pressure cookers, from Afghanistan to Malaysia, in the construction of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“After so many years of doing this, [Al Qaeda operatives] have sophisticated bombmakers and bombmaking methods. The assumption would be that, the more sophisticated [the device], the more likely it’s foreign terrorism,” says Mark Ensalaco, a terrorism expert at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

But seasoned terrorists would know that favored bombmaking ingredients like C4 and fertilizer are difficult to accumulate surreptitiously. “So they could have said, ‘We know they’re going to be looking for a bomb of that type, so we’re going to build a different type they won’t be expecting.' ” he adds

Reports Tuesday afternoon said that timing devices, not cell phones, were used to detonate the bombs. That could suggest that the bombers sought to avoid leaving a communications trail, some experts say. A call to detonate the bombs would have registered at a nearby cell tower.

But a timing device, if enough pieces can be reassembled, can also provide evidence that leads to the perpetrators, says Mr. Ensalaco. That is why even the smallest bits of evidence can end up being crucial, and why the public should treat any shred of information as potentially helpful, he adds.


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