A Web of Terror

More than two days have passed since the devastating terror attack that killed three and wounded 170 in Boston, and the public still has no inkling who was responsible. Media reports indicate that investigators are seeking one or more individuals who might have been involved, but no details about who they are or what they look like have been released at press time.

Speculation is rife. Was this the work of Islamic terrorists or is it a case of domestic terrorism? How many people were involved? Are they planning another attack? Many questions are being asked, but so far there are no ready answers.

What is known is that at least one of the bombs was housed in a relatively common kitchen tool known as a pressure cooker. Filled with explosives, nails and other deadly shrapnel, both devices contained some sort of triggering mechanism — likely a timer — and were intended to kill and maim a large number of innocent bystanders.

As forensic experts at the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va., continue to pore over every scrap of possible evidence, it seems to be increasingly clear that not only are the ingredients for these types of bombs relatively easy to obtain, but instructions how to build one are available with only a few clicks on a keyboard.

In 2010, a 67-page, color, English-language magazine named Inspire was released online. The articles in its very first edition included a number of rambling pro-Jihad diatribes, messages from leading al-Qaida figures, a first-person account from a terrorist in Afghanistan, a message to the al-Shabab Mujahedeen titled “Don’t be Sad,” a piece on “How to Prepare for Jihad” and an eight-page feature called “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” The latter included step-by-step instructions complete with photos, and recommended materials including nails, shrapnel, and “iron pipes, pressure cookers, fire extinguishers, or empty propane canisters.”

Some initially thought the magazine was some sort of hoax, but analysts came to the conclusion that it was the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American propagandist for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who was eliminated in an American airstrike in September.

Al-Awlaki is thought to have been directly involved in operational planning for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen branch is called. Yemeni officials have said al-Awlaki had contacts with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on December 25, 2009. In New York, the Pakistani-American man who pleaded guilty to the May 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt told interrogators he was “inspired” by al-Awlaki after making contact over the internet.

Al-Awlaki also exchanged up to 20 emails with U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people in the Nov. 5, 2009, rampage at Fort Hood. Hasan initiated the contacts, drawn in by al-Awlaki’s internet sermons, and approached him for religious advice.

U.S. Army Private Naser Jason Abdo was sentenced to life imprisonment in August 2012. He had been found in possession of a bomb with which he said he was going to blow up an eatery popular with soldiers from Fort Hood in an act of solidarity with Hasan. Abdo had read a copy of the Inspire article. In his hotel room, investigators found all the ingredients listed, including two pressure cookers.

It is too early to tell whether the terrorist — or terrorists — behind the attack in Boston had read or were influenced by the Inspire article or had been taught bomb-making skills on one of the numerous other websites containing instructions on how to create these deadly devices.

However, whether the culprit will prove to be a Islamic terrorist, a White Supremacist or an attention-seeking maniac, the role of the internet in aiding and abetting acts of terror cannot be overestimated. While hard copies of books with bomb-building instructions have long been available in some libraries and bookstores, borrowing or buying such a book would automatically raise a red flag, which in itself helps dissuade would-be terrorists. With such manuals posted online, they can be accessed by anyone in the privacy of home.

The internet has also become a fertile breeding ground for both Jihadists and domestic terrorists. No longer is there a need to travel overseas or attend a neo-Nazi club to become indoctrinated in the culture of evil; all it takes is a laptop and an internet connection.

In addition to the inherent spiritual dangers of the internet, it is abundantly clear that this tool has doubtlessly made the world a far more physically dangerous place to live.