Authorities won’t know whether the Boston Marathon bombing suspects worked as part of a larger terrorist cell until investigators are able to comb through their computer hard drives and probe whether they had any help in the deadly explosions at the finish line, terrorism experts said.
“They’ll be interviewing friends and family and be picking apart their hard drive,” said James Forest, director of the Center for Security Research and Technologies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“Those kind of things will help put together a portrait of these guys and their mindset and what they feel their place is in the world.”
Forest said the suspects chose a target — the Boston Marathon finish line — that would be videotaped and broadcast all over the world by news organizations covering the famous race.
“They knew that when it blew up it would be captured. We rarely see that type of media amplification among the lone wolf types,” said Forest, noting that insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan typically film their attacks to put the videos online.
Arnold Bogis, a security consultant in Washington, D.C., said he hasn’t heard of any well-organized terrorist cells being broken up since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
“But there definitely is a possibility that the threat is there,” said Bogis. “It’s the great question that keeps law enforcement up late at night.”
A terrorist doesn’t need to physically take part in an attack to be part of a cell. The jobs in a cell, such as financial backers, strategic planners and those who make the weapons, are usually distributed among members of a terrorist cell, said Bogis.
“A cell would be other people who helped the suspects, whether that’s logistics, money or food. If it turns out there were people helping him, then it could turn out to be a cell,” said Bogis. “It’s quite possible for a small group or even one person to cause this kind of havoc. But until they find other leads that they had help, it’s unclear whether it’s a cell.”
Forest said the terrorist suspects themselves may be the only ones able to definitively tell law enforcement whether they were part of a larger plot.
“One of the things that baffles people is no one has taken credit for this. Usually terrorists want to issue a justification for the violence. Even lone wolves sometimes leave manifestos,” said Forest.
“You would want to ask them, ‘Why did you choose the Boston Marathon?’ The other question is did some other group convince them to do this and if they did, why?”
Federal agents will also examine whether the suspects met up with any terrorists during their time out the country and what videos they downloaded and watched, according to Forest.
Bogis said it’s plausible the two suspects were working alone.
“You can buy pressure cookers off the shelf for $100. Gun powder you could buy easily,” he said. “It sounds like they were able to do this on the cheap.”