In the aftermath of yesterday's terrorist bombing in Boston,
I've been surprised to hear many commentators warn against "speculating" who
may be responsible. That's nonsense. Of course we should speculate: That's the
first step in formulating a hypothesis to guide an investigation that will lead
to facts. The facts may disprove our speculation, but we simply can't skip the
first step. So here are some initial hypotheses, in descending order of
plausibility. Most of these will later be proven wrong.
1. Al Qaeda, or a copycat jihadist group, did it.
AQ and its sympathizers have been trying to kill
Americans for 15 years and have a long track record of attempted and successful
A double-bombing fits AQ's modus operandi.
This is one of the two most-likely hypotheses. Against
this hypothesis: There's been no claim of responsibility yet, which is
unlike AQ. They're generally loud and proud about their killing. Also,
according to former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, al Qaeda is nearing
"strategic defeat." A successful attack on the U.S. homeland would suggest
otherwise. Could Panetta be wrong?
Variant: This might have been the work of a lone
jihadist sympathizer, like Nidal Hassan (the man charged with the 2009 Ft.
Bragg shootings), which would account for the lack of a claim of
responsibility. That would also account for the seemingly greater local
knowledge displayed in this attack.
2. North Korea did
North Korea was a designated state-sponsor of
terrorism from 1988 to 2008 for a series of terrorist bombings and kidnappings
against South Koreans and Japanese in the 1980s and 90s. The White House was recently
weighing whether to re-designate the state because of its continued lack of
cooperation against terrorism.
North Korea has undertaken a couple of brazen,
unprovoked attacks on South Korea in recent years, including sinking a
submarine and shelling an island in 2010.
North Korea is in the midst of a leadership
transition. Kim Jong Un has been banging the war drums for weeks to "Wag the Dog"
(solidify his rule by manufacturing a foreign crisis).
Yesterday was Kim Il-sung's birthday. North
Korea traditionally used the birthday of its founding "Great Leader" as an
opportunity to display its strength with military parades and bellicose
rhetoric. It was the day North Korea was widely expected to take some kind of
action to deliver on weeks of threats (though most thought it would be a
missile test, not a terrorist attack).
I think this is the other most likely hypotheses.
Against this hypothesis: It would be an uncharacteristic and risky
escalation for North Korea to attack a U.S. target, on U.S. soil (but maybe
that's how Kim Jong Un wants to distinguish himself).
3. Several groups cooperated in the attack.
From 1985 to 1989, Libya orchestrated
terrorism campaign against U.S. and western targets in Rome, Vienna, the
Mediterranean, Berlin, Madrid, several airliners, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Libya
often worked through proxy groups like the Palestine Liberation Front, Abu
Nidal, and the Japanese Red Army to give itself some plausible deniability and,
probably, to create the impression that a global anti-American coalition was
Similarly, today North Korea and/or al Qaeda may
be working with other anti-American actors (perhaps even each other) -- which
would represent a dangerous new evolution in international terrorism.
4. Domestic right-wing terrorists did it.
Right-wing groups have done more killing than
left-wing groups in recent decades.
Yesterday was tax day and Patriots Day, which
right-wing groups might have used to symbolize a nationalistic, anti-government
Against: Why the Boston Marathon? That doesn't
exactly scream "overbearing, tyrannical, confiscatory government." And
right-wing terrorism seems to have faded in the last decade.
5. Domestic left-wing terrorists did it.
Domestic left-wing terrorists are among the most
active terrorists in the United States, according
to the FBI.
Against: Left-wingers almost certainly did not
do the Boston bombing. The Earth and Animal Liberation Fronts specialize in
arson and sabotage. They're pretty careful about not killing people or animals.
This bombing doesn't fit their ideology. Other groups more comfortable with
killing -- the Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, Symbionese
Liberation Army, etc. -- have been dormant for decades. And protesting the
Boston Marathon isn't exactly a left-wing cause.
6. Anarchist/lone nut.
There was a spate of anarchist bombings and
assassinations in the 19th century, most famously felling President William
McKinley in 1901. The violence was propagated mostly by a bunch of lone nuts
with addled ideas.
Similarly, we've seen some fairly random,
non-ideological violence in recent years, including the shootings at Newtown,
Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; and in Arizona against Rep. Gabby Giffords. Perhaps we
are seeing a resurgence of violence for its own sake. That would account for
the lack of a claim of responsibility.
Against: Lone nuts tend not to be very smart. The
Boston bombing had the marks of some sophistication to it.