By Wilson John
The twin bomb blasts during the Boston Marathon on April 16 present new counter-terrorism challenges for the US as well as other countries gearing up to face a rapidly mutating threat which has remained resilient despite a decade-long military and diplomatic campaign.
Although it is too early to say whether the bombings, which killed three so far, have been an act of terror or terrorism, the incident certainly raises questions about the chinks in the heavily-armoured counter-terrorism measures put in place by the US following the 9/11 attacks.
In the absence of credible information about the bombings, it is useful to begin from one of the facts which has been clearly established – the explosives were kept in two pressure cookers filled with iron roller bearings and sharp metal pieces to cause maximum damage. These ‘pressure cooker’ bombs have been used by insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan and India for decades now. A major hub of training to assemble and use such bombs has been terrorist training camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Even al Qaida in 2010 had promoted these bombs as means of terrorist attacks. In its English magazine, Inspire, the terrorist group had explained the methodology of putting together such a bomb. Terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), Harkat-ul Jihad al Islami (HuJI), Indian Mujahideen (IM) and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are known to have used these bombs.
Three areas of concern, faced by the Indian authorities and now confronting the US counter-terrorism officials, are – one, these bombs are easy to make with materials like pressure cookers and explosives like ammonia nitrate and ordinary timers procured without much difficulty and locally; two, there are enough training resources both online and offline to facilitate in assembling the ‘pressure cooker bombs'; and three, these bombs are difficult to detect, are capable of dodging sniffer dogs and routine checks as they can be hidden in normal carry bags or backpacks.
Incidentally, the use of ‘pressure cooker bombs’ also give clues about the possible movement of the attackers and even the number of persons involved in the conspiracy, planning and the attack. Skimming the incidents involving these types of bombs in India –the 2006 Mumbai train serial blasts, 2008 Delhi serial blasts, 2010 Varanasi blast and 2013 Hyderabad blasts-show that these bombs were carried to the site undetected by the bombers themselves using own vehicle or public transport. Most of the bombers had come from distant towns but either had local contacts or temporary premises to assemble the bombs before carrying out the attacks.
Three other indicators that follow from the above analysis would be the possibility of the bombs being assembled not far from the bombing site, the involvement of a group of persons in the conspiracy, planning and attack and individually or otherwise not on the watch list of the intelligence agencies.
The big CT question for the US will be how to prevent such attacks in the future. The possibility of ‘copy cat’ attacks cannot be ruled out. It will be difficult to prevent or monitor the sale of pressure cookers or other utensils. Tracking the locally available incendiary materials could be a better and more effective counter action. It is fair to assume that such a mechanism is already in place in the US. The question then is how the bomber (s) managed to procure the explosives despite such measures. This questions becomes even more salient considering that Faisal Shahazad, a Pakistani American, had attempted to blow up Times Square in 2010 using a pressure cooker bomb along with other materials kept in a car.