on security

Oct 30, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

8 mins read

When Terrorism Isn't Intended to Kill

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
The bomb squad of the Broward County Sheriff's Office uses a robotic vehicle to investigate a suspicious package at the building housing an office for U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)  in Sunrise, Florida, on Oct. 24, 2018.
(JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images)
  • The person who sent a recent series of bombs through the mail to top Democrats and others in the United States did not design the devices to explode.
  • The inclusion of bombmaking components, shrapnel and white powder in the packages suggests that the perpetrator was attempting to scare and intimidate rather than kill.
  • Nevertheless, the packages contained all the elements of a "destructive device" under U.S. law, meaning the sender is likely to receive lengthy prison sentences for the offenses.

On Oct. 26, law enforcement officers arrested a 56-year-old Florida resident in connection with a series of mail bombs that were sent to prominent Democratic politicians and liberal figures, including former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The suspect (whom we will purposefully not name here) has a long criminal history, including a 2002 conviction for threatening to bomb Florida Power & Light, an electric utility company. His social media accounts contained a great deal of disturbing and even threatening material directed against the media, Democratic politicians, moderate Republican politicians, celebrities and high-profile liberal figures such as George Soros.

The Big Picture

Terrorism has always been about using violence and threats of violence to send a political message — the so-called "propaganda of the deed." In recent years, terrorist groups and others have succeeded in sowing fear through hoax letters, bomb threats and other types of warnings. And because coverage by around-the-clock media and social media has magnified terrorism, it is easier than ever for groups and individuals to create fear, as the letter bomb campaign clearly illustrates.

According to the criminal complaint, the FBI laboratory identified a fingerprint on an envelope addressed to U.S. Rep Maxine Waters and found possible DNA matches on the package sent to Obama. The FBI complaint did not provide any additional details about the bombs involved in this case, although it did confirm that the image of a previously unidentified person attached to a device alongside a parody Islamic State flag belonged to one of the targeted recipients, John Brennan, and had a red "X" over his face. But as investigators further analyze the packages and devices (at present, there are 15 and counting), they are almost certain to discover other evidence linking the prime — and, so far, sole — suspect to the devices.

The devices appeared to have serious design flaws, yet that doesn't mean they didn't have all the components of a "destructive device," as classified under federal law. Because of that, the devices were not hoaxes, because shock, friction or even static electricity can still detonate energetic material such as black powder, FBI Director Christopher Wray stated at an Oct. 26 news conference. Nevertheless, plenty of evidence suggests that the devices were never intended to cause physical harm, but that doesn't mean they weren't intended to sow terror.

Devices to Detonate?

In my opinion, the design of the devices remains puzzling. Although they had all the components required for a functional pipe bomb (a 6-inch section of 1-inch PVC pipe, two ends, low explosive filler, a clock with a battery and some glass shrapnel), it is still unclear if the bombmaker properly wired the timer to detonate the device when the alarm functioned. In fact, it is unclear if the alarm was set at all. According to a law enforcement source who spoke to CNN, the suspect told investigators that the bombs wouldn't have hurt anyone. And indeed, none of the bombs exploded between Oct. 22, when a staff member opened the first parcel at the Soros residence, and the morning of Oct. 29, when authorities intercepted a bomb on its way to CNN in Atlanta.

A map shows where the pipe bombs were sent in the United States.

Even if everything had been wired properly, I am also unsure whether the small button battery in the clock would have had enough power to overcome the resistance in the heavy and inordinately long wires used in the devices. (It is worth noting that using wire that is too heavy — and a battery that is too weak for the wire used — is a mistake amateur bombmakers frequently commit.) Moreover, given the small size of the pipe and the minuscule amount of explosive powder contained within, I also doubt it would have resulted in any fatalities in the event of an explosion.

Moreover, the decision to use a timer at all in a package bomb is curious. Most package or letter bombs are designed to detonate upon opening. The design of the device, featuring a typical pipe bomb shape and large digital timer affixed to the front, as well as wires connecting the timer and the pipe, seemed more like something from a Hollywood prop department that was intended to portray a bomb to an audience. Additionally, the stickers on the pipe appear to have been intended to send a threat, rather than be immediately destroyed in an explosion. (A quick glance at the suspected bombmaker's van also reveals that he appears to have had some sort of affinity for such stickers.)

The inclusion of envelopes of white powder alongside the bombs further suggests that the perpetrator was hoping to sow panic, rather than destruction. Why include white powder if an explosion would only destroy it completely before anybody could see it? Instead, it appears that the bombmaker was attempting to cause panic on multiple levels rather than actually kill. What's more, the suspect would have been aware that high-profile people rarely open their own mail, while it is common knowledge that authorities screen the mail of former presidents and members of Congress for malicious items.

Now, it is certainly possible that the bombmaker suffered from delusions, possessed terrible bombmaking skills and assumed, foolishly, that his devices would function properly, go straight to somebody like the previous president of the United States and prove deadly. But given that the suspect informed law enforcement officers that the devices would not have hurt anyone, it seems far more likely that he was merely attempting to intimidate and threaten his targets.

Making Threats More Real

Some have expressed skepticism that the bombmaker would go to the trouble of placing explosive powder and shrapnel in a bomb intended to merely frighten, but this is not as uncommon as one would think. I have investigated and analyzed similar hoax pipe bomb cases in the past. The first was in February 1997, when Shimon Peres, the then-Israeli prime minister, came to the Jacksonville Jewish Center in northern Florida to give a speech. (My former agency, the Diplomatic Security Service, was in charge of Peres' protection during his trip, which is how I was assigned to investigate this case.) Aiming to disrupt the speech, a local, right-wing Jewish man decided to fabricate a pipe bomb — albeit one lacking a complete firing chain — place it inside the center and call 911 to report a bomb. The perpetrator's preparation and actions suggest he did not intend for the bomb to detonate, but because he filled the pipe bomb with low explosive powder, authorities threatened to indict him on a charge of using an explosive device in the commission of a crime. Fearing a long sentence, the suspect agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of threatening an internationally protected person, receiving 10 years in jail.

In 2007, Stratfor analyzed, and assisted authorities on, the case of a Dubuque, Iowa, man known as the The Bishop, who sent a series of complete but unassembled pipe bombs in boxes to financial services companies as part of a bizarre scheme to manipulate the price of a selected stock to $6.66 — the level at which he thought he could make a significant profit. In his campaign, The Bishop, who had previously failed in his quest through a series of threatening letters to the firms in 2005, also included smokeless powder and buckshot shrapnel alongside the unassembled components. Ultimately, the moral of both stories shows that people will often include explosive powder and shrapnel in devices that are incapable of detonating. It also demonstrates that they will pay a high price when they are caught and convicted for doing so, as evidenced by The Bishop, who received a sentence of 37 years — 30 of which stemmed from using an explosive device in the commission of a crime.

Even if the present perpetrator does not face terrorism charges, that does not mean that this was not terrorism in the academic sense. Terrorism is not just about violence for the sake of violence, but about using violence, or threats of violence, to intimidate people and elicit fear.

Sowing Terror Without Violence

Officials have not, to date, charged him with domestic terrorism, although they could add such charges or others depending on further evidence. Laying domestic terrorism charges under existing federal statutes, however, often adds a level of complexity to a prosecution, meaning authorities often avoid seeking them in cases where they can still sentence the perpetrator to significant prison time. In the present case, prosecutors might also steer clear of indicting the suspect on terrorism charges, since he is already facing a long time in jail — pending an examination of his ability to stand trial — because the many devices contained all the elements that fulfill the designation of an explosive device. The nature of his targets may also influence the pursuit of terrorism charges.

But even if the present perpetrator does not face terrorism charges, that does not mean that this was not terrorism in the academic sense. Terrorism is not just about violence for the sake of violence, but about using violence, or threats of violence, to intimidate people and elicit fear. These bombs certainly accomplished that, even if they were not ultimately intended to kill.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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