Boston bombings a sad reminder of past domestic terror attacks

As investigators seek to determine who killed three people and injured at least 176 using two bombs at Boston Marathon, domestic terrorism will be one of many theories discussed in a broad manhunt. But don’t expect talk about specific groups.

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Source: Anna Frodesiak (OpenStreetMap).

To be sure, federal and local investigators are looking at all angles in the case, which they have called a “worldwide investigation.”

“It will take time to follow every lead and determine what happened, but we will find out,” President Barack Obama said on Tuesday. “We will find whoever harmed our citizens, and we will bring them to justice. We also know this: The American people refuse to be terrorized.”

Law enforcement officials have been quick to say that they won’t rule out any suspects—and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

Those statements might be an allusion to the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, when government officials first blamed international terrorists for the massive blast that killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Timothy McVeigh, a former U.S. Army soldier, was upset about government incidents at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and he plotted to bomb the Murrah building with Terry Nichols. Both were convicted, and McVeigh was executed in 2001, while Nichols is in jail for life without parole. A third man, Michael Fortier, testified against McVeigh and Nichols and received a 12-year prison sentence.

The federal government has ramped up its efforts against domestic terrorism since Oklahoma City and the 9/11 terror attacks.

According to a May 2012 Congressional Research Service report,  the Justice Department and FBI have defined domestic terror threats to include “individuals who commit crimes in the name of ideologies supporting animal rights, environmental rights, anarchism, white supremacy, anti-government ideals, black separatism, and anti-abortion beliefs.”

The report also explains why the federal government tracks a list of domestic terror threats, and not an official public list of groups that could be considered at threats.

“There is no official open-source roster of domestic groups that the FBI or other federal agencies target as terrorist organizations. The lack of such a designation may spring partly from First Amendment concerns. Such a list might discourage speech and expression related to the ideologies underpinning the activities of named groups.”

The CRS also cites an FBI report from 1999 that said “[d]uring the past 30 years, the vast majority—but not all—of the deadly terrorist attacks occurring in the United States have been perpetrated by domestic extremists.”

Among these incidents were a 1910 incident, when union organizers bombed the Los Angeles Times building (killing 21 people); the 1920 Wall Street bombing by anarchists (where 38 people were killed); the Bath, Michigan, schoolhouse bombing in 1927 (where 45 people died); the Centennial Park Olympics bombing of 1996; and the Unabomber incidents.

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And even in the post-9/11 world, there have been at least a dozen incidents, says the CRS, tied to domestic terrorism. They mostly have been planned under the radar.

“Aware of the lines between constitutionally protected speech and criminality, domestic terrorists often rope themselves off from ideological (above-ground) elements that openly and often legally espouse similar beliefs. In essence, the practitioners who commit violent acts are distinct from the propagandists who theorize and craft worldviews that could be interpreted to support these acts,” the CRS says.

The FBI does have a domestic terrorism list, which features six people wanted for crimes dating back to the 1970s.

Aiding the investigators in Boston will be a large amount of digital evidence in the case, where thousands of people had mobile devices and cameras at the event. The FBI will also be able to ask for subpoenas to see cell tower records in the vicinity of the explosions.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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