The facts: As reported by the BBC and the CNN:
- Three persons, including an 8-year-old child, were killed in two explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on the afternoon of April 15, 2013.
- Hospitals reported at least 144 people are being treated for injuries, with at least 17 of them in critical condition and 25 in serious condition. At least eight of them are children. At least 10 people injured had limbs amputated. Several of the patients treated at Massachusetts General Hospital suffered injuries to lower limbs.
- The two blasts were about 50 to 100 yards apart with a few minutes one after the other. A federal law enforcement official told CNN that both bombs were small, and initial tests showed no C-4 or other high-grade explosive material, suggesting that the packages used in the attack were crude explosive devices.
- Authorities in Boston found at least one other explosive device , Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said. Rep. Bill Keating of Massachusetts said two more were found. One unexploded device was found at a hotel on Boylston Street near the bomb site and another unexploded device was found at an undisclosed location.
- There were no credible threats before the Marathon, a state government official said. There is no suspect in custody, but many people are being questioned, Davis said. Investigators warned police to be on the lookout for a "darker-skinned or black male" with a possible foreign accent in connection with the attack, according to a law enforcement advisory obtained by CNN. The man was seen with a black backpack and sweatshirt and was trying to get into a restricted area about five minutes before the first explosion, the lookout notice states. Also, a Saudi national with a leg wound was under guard at a Boston hospital in connection with the bombings, but investigators cannot say he is involved at this time and he is not in custody, a law enforcement official said.
- In addition to scrutinizing images of surveillance cameras in the area, the FBI likely was issuing subpoenas for records from cell towers in the area to isolate and trace calls from around Copley Square at the time of the blasts, according to a former federal law enforcement official who now works in the intelligence community.
- Mayor (Thomas) Menino said: “Our focus is on making sure that the area around Copley Square is safe and secured. I am asking everyone to stay away from Copley Square and let the first responders do their jobs."
- The Federal Aviation Administration placed a flight restriction over the site of the blasts. Other cities, including New York and Washington, tightened security as a result. Following standard protocol, the White House cleared out an area in front of the West Wing.
- Troops from the Massachusetts National Guard, already at the site as part of the marathon's security and crowd-management plan, were assisting police as well.
- The FBI has taken over co-ordination of what it described as a "potential terrorist inquiry". Although President Obama, in his initial statement, did not use the word "terrorism", a White House official later said: "Any event with multiple explosive devices - as this appears to be - is clearly an act of terror and will be approached as an act of terror."
- Officials in Washington said no group or individual had so far said they carried out the attack.
Since the 9/11 acts of catastrophic terrorism in the US Homeland carried out by Al Qaeda, using hijacked aircraft, there have been two attempted acts of catastrophic terrorism by Al Qaeda by causing explosions on US passenger aircraft flying from Europe to the US.
On 22 December 2001, Richard Reid, a British citizen, boarded American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami, wearing shoes packed with explosives, which he unsuccessfully tried to detonate. Passengers overpowered him on the plane, which quickly landed at Logan International Airport in Boston, , the closest US airport. He was arrested and indicted. He was reported to have been motivated by Al Qaeda elements in Pakistan.
On December 26, 2009, Abdul Mutallab, 23, a Nigerian, tried to detonate an explosive device, apparently a mix of powder and liquid, on a North-West Airlines flight, coming from Nigeria via Amsterdam, and approaching Detroit. An alert passenger noticed him and he was overpowered. He was believed to have been motivated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Boston Marathon blasts have coincided with a fast reportedly undertaken since March 19,2013, by 24 of the Al Qaeda suspects still held in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre to protest against the alleged inhuman conditions in the Centre. Activists of a Muslim group called Witness Against Torture (WAT) began a hunger strike in solidarity with the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The group said in its web site: “We will gather for action in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities domestically and internationally to denounce the barbaric practice of torture and indefinite detention and to demand justice for the men at Guantanamo.” The solidarity fast by WAT was scheduled to last till March 30. A handful of activists plan to continue fasting every Friday until the prison is closed.
There is so far no evidence to indicate that the Boston blasts might have been linked with the fast. No claim of responsibility for the blasts has been made so far and there is till now no evidence to show whether the blasts were carried out by individual rogue elements with personal grievances or ideologically motivated organisations.
While the US Homeland had previously seen acts of catastrophic terrorism and attempts to commit such acts through aircraft, this is the first time a conventional act of terrorism using improvised explosive devices has been committed, if the involvement of rogue individual elements is ruled out.
The perpetrators, whether rogue individuals or members of ideologically motivated organisations, have succeeded in evading physical security for the Boston Marathon in procuring explosive material, detonators and timers and planting the IEDs without being noticed by the extensive CCTV camera network along the Marathon route.
The local security authorities and the FBI do not appear to have received any advance inkling of a possible terrorist strike either through electronic chatter or from human sources.
The explosions show that despite the strengthening of homeland security in the US after 9/11, terrorists have managed to find intelligence and physical security gaps in the security network and exploited them. The Boston blasts also illustrate the difficulties in preventing conventional style attacks as against sophisticated catastrophic attacks.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (etd),Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi. Twitter : @SORBONNE75