A rather quick response piece to events in Boston with a colleague at RUSI in response to the inevitable surge in inquiries after the sad incident. Undoubtedly more about this as it emerges, though I am wary of ascribing responsibility at this point. My own sense is that it is likely a lone individual, something I say based on the sort of device, the random target and the lack of any subsequent ideological messaging, but until more information emerges it is dangerous to speculate too much.
The authorities in the United States are rightly cautious in ascribing blame to yesterday’s incident in Boston. The explosions – killing three and injuring over 140 – highlight the importance of securing public events without being governed by fear.
With no claims of responsibility and no ideological leads that authorities are visibly pursuing, it is almost impossible to know why yesterday’s attack in Boston took place.
The early facts are clear: the target was the Boston Marathon; the use of two devices, and their location, suggests the intention was to kill as many people as possible; and the devices appear to have been homemade, possibly with black powder. None of these details conclusively point to a particular individual or a group.
Sporting events in the United States have been targeted before. Most prominently during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Eric Rudolph targeted the games with a homemade explosive, killing two and injuring more than a hundred. Looking further afield, of course, the Munich Olympics of 1972 stand out as a major incident conducted by international terrorists taking advantage of the spotlight that the games brought. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, attacks on public places with the aim of causing mass casualties – such as those in Madrid, London, Mumbai and Norway – have become the favoured modus operandi of terrorists around the world, regardless of the ideologies to which they subscribe.
The choice of two explosive devices, timed to detonate within seconds of one another, and the use of shrapnel inside them suggest the perpetrator(s) wanted to harm as many people as possible. Eyewitnesses record that the second explosion happened as they were running from the first. In addition, choosing the finishing line of the Boston Marathon as a target ensures that media coverage of the attack will reach the eyes of the world within seconds: television cameras and press photographers were already on site, while a plethora of social media was available with which both the media and the public could broadcast the incident far and wide.
Fortunately for many of the runners and spectators caught up in the attack, there was a large emergency-response team on hand. A marathon – or any other large public event – by necessity has high numbers of volunteer and professional paramedics on standby, as well as large numbers of crowd stewards and police to help keep the situation as calm as possible. Command-and-control centres – ready to deal with any incident that arises – will already have been established to manage the marathon and will be able to respond to the incident quickly.
Just as fortunately, perhaps, the improvised explosive devices seem to have produced a relatively limited explosion and to have caused few fatalities.
Who Perpetrated These Attacks?
The key questions that remain are who was responsible for this incident and what they hoped to achieve. Given there was no specific intelligence regarding an attack, it will take time for the US authorities to determine the identity of the culprit(s).
There are numerous terrorist groups who could have conducted an attack, including domestic groups. For example, the forthcoming twentieth anniversary of the climax of the Waco siege, centred on a cult based in Texas, could prompt such an attack by a sympathetic domestic group; while those on the far political right and Patriot movements in America should not be immediately or instinctively discounted as potential perpetrators. It may even be a lone individual.
But the truth is that at this stage we do not know, and it is not useful to speculate over who was responsible and whether or not the choice of a marathon run on Patriots’ Day as the target is significant. The incident highlights how rapidly and easily it is possible to grip the world’s attention with a single act of violence. Whether the perpetrator is a lone wolf, right wing, jihadist or other, this terror plot has once again caught the world’s attention.
However tragic the event, from a resilience perspective it is important to guard against allowing the psychological damage to outweigh the physical and material. Whoever the perpetrators and whatever their specific aim, their real victory is counted not in the number of people killed or injured in Boston, but in the impact the attacks may have on, to quote the UK National Security Strategy, the ability of those targeted ‘to go about their daily lives freely and with confidence’. The more this freedom is undermined, the greater the success of the act of terrorism.
Questions have already been raised about the security of the forthcoming London Marathon, taking place within days of its Boston counterpart, on 21 April. In his 2007 review of security in crowded public places, Lord West (then Under-Secretary of State for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office) made clear that while the threat to such events has increased in recent years, lockdown is neither practical nor prudent.
Nonetheless, it is worth reviewing security arrangements in advance of the London Marathon this weekend. Such security arrangements are made up of two workstreams: to ‘protect’ and ‘prepare’, both of which the government sees as a high priority and which have also been practised extensively in recent months – an feature of the Olympic legacy. During the 2012 Olympics, London hosted a marathon for which security arrangements were ramped up considerably from those in place for previous London Marathons. As one of the few events not completely contained within the Olympic Park or dedicated venues, the vulnerabilities will have been scrutinised extensively and plans will have been made for the mitigation of an attack. The planning for this and the Olympic Torch relay route is still fresh in the minds of all those involved, as are the skills and techniques used in implementing the plans – from protecting transportation routes without imposing airport-style security measures, to using CCTV camera software to pick up suspicious behaviour in crowds.
Such preparation has to be done in advance; additional personnel cannot be sourced and trained in days. They need to be ready to go – and they will be. It is likely that some of the security infrastructure put in place for Baroness Thatcher’s funeral tomorrow will now remain in place over the weekend, including the numbers of personnel on high-readiness to deploy, for example, and the incident control rooms fully staffed and ready to respond immediately.
Similarly, there will be an increased security focus on any intelligence that may suggest a threat to the marathon and on anything that might be known by then about the perpetrators of the Boston attacks or their networks. Luckily, ramping command-and-control networks and intelligence-sharing back up to Olympic-period levels will still be based on personal memory and experience; new technology paid for out of Olympic budgets is still state-of-the-art. Such solid preparation brings with it as high a level of protection as possible. Everything that can be done will be done to ensure the safety and security of the London Marathon, and especially so in the aftermath of the tragic events in Boston.
As one participant in the Boston Marathon was heard to say, we need to ‘keep calm and carry on running.’