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Domestic terrorism? Experts analyze targets, timing and tactics in package bomb attacks

An officer with the Uniform Division of the United States Secret Service uses his dog to search a checkpoint near the home of President Barack Obama, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Washington. The U.S. Secret Service says agents have intercepted packages containing "possible explosive devices" addressed to former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

As of Thursday afternoon, law enforcement authorities had confirmed ten explosive devices intended for nine high-level targets were intercepted in what many are considering an act of domestic terrorism.

None of the devices detonated and a federal investigation is underway for the perpetrator or perpetrators of the attacks which targeted Democratic politicians and donors.

Over the past 72 hours, the following individuals were the intended recipients of the suspicious packages:

  • Former President Barack Obama — One package sent to Obama's home in Washington, D.C. was intercepted Wednesday at an off-site mail screening facility.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden — Two packages sent to Biden's home in Delaware were intercepted early Thursday at postal facilities in Newcastle and Wilmington.
  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — One package sent to Clinton's home in Chappaqua, New York was intercepted Tuesday at an off-site mail screening facility.
  • Former CIA Director John Brennan via CNN —One package addressed to Brennan was sent to CNN's offices in New York City.
  • Former Attorney General Eric Holder — One package addressed to Holder failed to reach its destination and was delivered Wednesday to the return addressee, the Sunshine, Florida office of former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.
  • Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters — Two packages sent to Waters were intercepted Wednesday at her district office in Los Angeles and at the congressional mail-sorting facility in Maryland.
  • Liberal philanthropist George Soros — One package was delivered to Soros' mailbox at his home in New York and authorities responded to the incident Tuesday.
  • Actor Robert Deniro — One package was delivered to Deniro's restaurant in lower Manhattan.

Also, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that a device was sent to his Manhattan office.

Federal law enforcement officials are evidently treating the series of bomb threats as a matter of terrorism. The FBI is coordinating with joint terrorism task forces to investigate and bring the perpetrator or perpetrators to justice.

President Donald Trump has yet to label the attacks against some of his biggest political critics as terrorism or domestic terrorism. On Wednesday, he denounced "any acts or threats of political violence" as "an attack on our democracy itself." Trump called on "those engaged in the political arena" to "stop treating political opponents as being morally defective" and said, "the media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone."

According to David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, many factors suggest an act of terrorism. "I think it is a form of terrorism because it is the threatened use of violence to send a political message. The fact that this was sent to one particular party makes it a clear political act," he said.

With less than two weeks until a high-stakes midterm election, the timing of the event points to an attempt to make a political statement of influence politics.

It also suggests the attacks were perpetrated by one or more domestic actors, not a foreign threat, said Daryl Johnson, a former domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security and founder of DT Analytics.

Acknowledging it is still early in the investigation, Johnson explained, "Analyzing the targets, the timing and the modus operandi [i.e., the tactics used], all point to a domestic, homegrown actor."

SELECTION OF TARGETS

Each of the nine individuals targeted has figured prominently in conservative political attacks for their direct criticism of President Trump. "This is a virtual who's who of Trump opponents," Johnson noted.

Hillary Clinton, Maxine Waters and Eric Holder were featured in a recent White House video Trump tweeted with the hashtag #JobsNotMobs. The video featured clips of the Democrats calling on supporters to aggressively confront Republicans. Trump also accused George Soros of financing protesters who he said "mobbed" the Capitol to oppose his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

Biden and Trump exchanged threats to physically brawl earlier this year. At a rally, Biden said he would take Trump "behind the gym" and "beat the hell out of him" if they were in high school. Trump later shot back, "I would kick his ass." Robert Deniro also said, "I would like to punch him in the face" referring to Trump in a 2016 campaign video.

Obama and Brennan have been central figures in President Trump's repeated complaints that the Justice Department is engaged in a "witch hunt" against him for alleged campaign collusion with Russia. Trump has directly accused Obama of spying on him and in August, Trump revoked Brennan's security clearance after the former CIA chief accused him of treason.

CNN, which may have been a secondary target, has been the subject of repeated attacks from the president and his allies as "fake news" and "an enemy of the people."

Using the controversial former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz as the name on the return address on the packages may have been "political parody," Johnson noted. It may also be an attempt to divert attention or make it appear to be a Democratic plot, as many conspiracy theorists immediately concluded.

The president and other political leaders who use language that "dehumanizes" their political opponents are walking a dangerous line, advised Schanzer. "It's a dangerous step because some people will interpret that as a green light for violence. They may even see it as a duty," he explained, even if that is not the intention of the message. "That's the mindset of the terrorist."

According to William Braniff, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), the combination of high explosives, the number of targets and that those targets were high profile officials is "fairly unique."

START has aggregated an extensive database of domestic terror incidents over nearly a half century. "We actually don't have that many incidents in the United States where all of those elements are present," he said. The staggered delivery of the packages further suggests the threat was meant to play out over time, "to increase the drama around the event and increase the duration of the media coverage."

DESCRIPTION OF DEVICES

The packages are mostly similar in appearance, according to the FBI. They were delivered in a manila envelope lined with Bubble Wrap, had six forever U.S. stamps and computer-printed labels with the address of the intended target and a return address of Wasserman-Schultz's Sunshine, Florida office.

X-ray images released by law enforcement show a pipe bomb with a wire and battery. At least one of the devices had shards of glass in it, according to images and media reports. This indicates the device was intended to cause physical harm rather than being a "prank," Johnson said.

The package sent to locations in New York City had both a "live" pipe bomb and "white powder." That the powder "did not present a biological threat," the FBI assistant director in charge of the New York field office William Sweeney said Thursday. Further analysis is ongoing.

No one has been harmed and none of the devices self-detonated. At least one device sent to George Soros' home was "proactively detonated" by bomb squad technicians, according to reports. Officials described it as a 6-inch pipe bomb filled with explosive white powder.

Other devices sent to locations in New York were not detonated on-site but transported as evidence to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, Sweeney said. All of the packages are currently being analyzed at the Quantico lab.

The apparent lack of sophistication of the devices further suggests a domestic actor, according to Johnson, rather than the more advanced, highly explosive package bombs typically associated with international terrorist threats. The use of powder as a threatened biological agent has been historically linked to domestic extremism, Johnson said, calling the tactic "a hallmark signature of rightwing extremists."

The devices have, thankfully, had a zero percent success rate. That fact and images of the devices circulated rapidly around the internet has led some to speculate about the authenticity of the bombs. "This has to be taken with the utmost seriousness," New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill told reporters Thursday. Police and bomb squad technicians are treating the packages as live and not "hoax" devices.

The specifics of the devices are less important than the psychological and political effect they are intended to have, Braniff stressed. "Terrorism is not about the bomb going off, it's about the psychological impact of the violence or the threat of violence."

THE INVESTIGATION MOVING FORWARD

With ten devices and apparently nine intact, the FBI will have a wealth of forensic evidence. Analysts who specialize in incendiary and explosive devices will be looking for signatures in how the devices were crafted and what materials were used to identify a suspect.

Officials in New York confirmed that at least a handful of the devices were delivered through the U.S. Postal Service. This will allow authorities to track the packages to their origin and analyze security footage, a process that helped law enforcement succeed in finding the Austin, Texas bomber earlier this year. Security footage will also be valuable in tracing the origin or packages reportedly delivered by hand.

The publicity around the suspicious packages can also help mail carriers and the general public be more aware of or identify additional threats that may still be en route.

The high-profile nature of the targets also ensures all available federal resources will be dedicated to the search for the perpetrator or perpetrators. "This investigation is of the highest priority for the FBI," Director Christopher Wray said in a statement.

Beyond ensuring physical safety, there is an additional danger of an attempted terrorist act further aggravating a tense political atmosphere.

"We shouldn't aggrandize these threats. We shouldn't let them further polarize an already polarized nation," Braniff said. "We should not aid and abet the incentive to do this again."

The FBI encourages anyone with any information about the incidents to contact the FBI. The agency stressed that "no piece of information is too small" to help the investigation.

Anyone with information about the packages should contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or tips.fbi.gov.

If you encounter a suspicious item or package, the Department of Homeland Security explains what to do. Most important, stay calm, do not touch, tamper with or move the item and immediately notify authorities.


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