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Early Clues in Terror Cases Can Be Tantalizing, But Also Wrong

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Bombs Offer Clues
While there is significant speculation about the date and location of yesterday's horrific terror attack at the Boston marathon that killed 3, and injured over 170, physical evidence will yield some of the most important clues. One of the most important clues is a bomb's signature. That is the particular construction and configuration a device has, that yields clues to connect the bomb to the bomb maker. Bomb makers often use similar components and construction patterns repetitively, albeit with minor changes over time.

Furthermore, small parts of a device may be traced back to items found on a suspect or in their residence or workplace, or in the records of purchase transactions. For first time bombers, as opposed to serial offenders, there is no prior available bomb signature for authorities to compare. To make matters more complicated, the recipe for bomb making is readily available on the Internet, and no one Internet location or extremist group has a monopoly on the dissemination of such information. Indeed, everyone from white supremacists, anti-government militants, Salafist Jihadists, and Animal Libertation sympathizers have disseminated this type of information in handbooks or Internet postings. Indeed, Patriots Day and the tax deadline have particular relevance to extremists in the anti-government and white supremacist world. No suspects or groups have yet been named, and it is entirely possible that a loner or small number of people could have committed the act.

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New Extremist Manual: Possible Clue or Irrelevant Coincidence?
Curiously, last month a new English language terrorist instruction manual, The Lone Mujahid Pocketbook, was released by an al Qaeda splinter group, that teaches readers in color, step by step how to construct shrapnel bombs that appear quite similar to those allegedly used in yesterday's attacks. The book instructs and incites followers to attack the American homeland on their own as lone wolves through readily available methods and features Times Square on the cover. This afternoon, CNN is reporting that officials are saying that the crude devices used in Boston likely had timers and at least one was crafted from a pressure cooker. Among those highlighted in the manual are shrapnel laden pipe bombs as well as those with timers and one that appears to involve a photo of what appears to be a pressure cooker with shrapnel, among numerous other weapons. Pressure cooker bombs have been used in the Middle East and Asia. The manual has easy to follow graphics and tips on how to get the materials and component parts to put these devices together.

The book contains a compilation of terror instructions largely culled from prior editions of Inspire magazine. Before their deaths from American drone strikes in Yemen in September 2011 Anwar al- Awlaki and Samir Khan, an American techno whiz were the publishers of the magazine.

Al-Awlaki most recently worked on behalf of his terrorist organization, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which was formed in January 2009. Because of his command of English, his excellent rhetorical skills and his ubiquity online, Al Awlaki was arguably the most important inspirational figure to a very small, but growing new breed of Internet savvy disaffected youth and adults in North America and Britain, including alleged Fort Hood killer Nadal Hasan.

Khan left North Carolina for Yemen in the fall of 2009, and authorities believed he was also behind Al Qaeda's Inspire magazine, which debuted in the summer of 2010. The magazine's professional production values and youth oriented focus made it a cause for concern for federal authorities. There have been ten editions that include such content as an interview with Anwar al-Awlaki and an article entitled "How to make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," as well as other articles encouraging readers to "mow down" people with cars and how to destroy buildings. The bomb making instructions were once allegedly hacked by British spies, who replaced it with a recipe for cupcakes. It is believed that a federal grand jury met in North Carolina to investigate whether there was enough evidence to indict Khan for aiding Al Qaeda. Charges against Khan will never be filed since he was killed in the same September 2011 missile strike that also left his mentor al-Awlaki dead.

The practice of targeting unsophisticated autonomous young adults to undertake attacks in America on their own was the source of a rift between Osama bin Laden and AQAP, as evidenced by email correspondence recovered after bin Laden's death. Bin Laden preferred attacks on a grand scale, while al-Awlaki encouraged smaller attacks if they could be successful. CNN reports that authorities have discounted a direct connection to al Qaeda as well as any connection to an injured Saudi man who appears to be an innocent victim.

History Lesson: A Variety of Possible Offenders Exist
A deadly attack against civilians at a densely populated event could have been committed by a variety of terrorists, from loners to cells, with varying motives. The three main categories of extremist aggressors are listed below, and usually one is the primary element with an offender, with at least one other playing a secondary supporting role:
. The Ideologically Motivated (Religious, Political or Hybrid)
. The Psychologically Dangerous (Sociopath or Cognitively Impaired)
. Personal Benefit or Revenge

It is simply too early to tell, especially from unconfirmed sketchy media reports, the connection, if any of the bomber(s) to a specific Internet source or for that matter to a particular motivation. In cases like the Oklahoma City and Centennial Park bombings or the targetting of a federal judge's family, history has shown that early speculation can be stunningly wrong.

Some initially thought a large vehicular bomb made the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City attack likely a foreign based attack because those devices were most common there. The killer of 168 Americans was a fellow American born citizen, Timothy McVeigh. After the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta on July 27, 1996 that killed two and injured scores more, speculation soon centered around Richard Jewell, the portly security guard who found the pipebomb. Theories soon circulated about the false hero profile. After intense speculation, investigation and relentless ridicule of Jewell as the "UnaBubba," the focus eventually switched to a racist anti-government serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, who now is serving a life sentence in federal prison.

After Federal District Court Judge Joan Lefkow's husband and mother were found shot to death at her Illinois home in 2005 speculation understandably focused on white supremacists. Matt Hale, the high profile leader of the World Church of the Creator was already in prison for soliciting her killing after losing a civil case before her involving his hate group. Members of the group had previously committed bias motivated murders so the notion another group member or sympathizer committed the killings made perfect sense. Except it was wrong. Bart Ross, who had lost a medical malpractice case before the Judge admitted to the executions in a suicide note recovered after he shot himself to death.

While more well known in the extremist Salafist community, the Lone Mujahid manual, before mysteriously being taken offline today, was available to anyone regardless of motivation. Moreover, this certainly is not the only place where these types of instructions could be found. In 2011 Kevin Harpham, an alleged white supremacist and one time member of the National Alliance neo-Nazi group attempted to bomb the Martin Luther King parade in Spokane, WA with a shrapnel and rat poisoned laced explosive device left in a backpack. Extreme anti-government and racist hatemongers have been involved in dozens of plots over the last fifteen years.

Scholar Hussein Ibish rightly counsels in today's Daily Beast:

But within the wide range of possible scenarios, three obviously stand out. The culprits could be right-wing, anti-government American extremists. They might be some other kind of domestic extremists, or even a lone madman. But there is also the distinct possibility that the bombings may prove to be linked to some group of Muslim extremists, either foreign or domestic....If the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks are eventually linked to any kind of Muslim extremists, or even a deranged individual of Muslim origin, the likely impact is that this will set the clock back many years, if not a full decade, on the abating of the post-9/11 Islamophobia epidemic.

When a suspect is finally found both their physical, photographic and digital fingerprints will provide material evidence connecting them to the atrocity. It is simply too soon to string anything else together and all of us would be well served by exercising caution. No extremist movement, or unstable individual for that matter, has a monopoly on hatred, communication or tactics. The sad fact is that terrorist assailants form a risk, albeit relatively small, that includes sociopaths, the angry and unstable as well as different ideologues within its sweep. Only time will tell whether, The Lone Mujahid book, along with many, many other things, represents a possible early clue or merely an interesting, though misguided distraction away from the real killer(s).