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What We Know About 'The Act Of Terrorism' In Boston


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington; Neal Conan is away. It's been less than 24 hours since two explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, and there are still more questions than answers about what happened. We can tell you so far that three people were killed, more than 170 injured.

Authorities searched an apartment in a Boston suburb late Monday evening, but there have been no arrests reported. Later today, we'll talk to an eyewitness who was at the scene. We'll also hear from a reporter in Boston about the latest information on the case, and we'll talk to a former FBI counterterrorism investigator about what goes into these types of investigations.

But we really want to hear from you as well, from those of you in Boston or people who traveled there for the marathon. What are you seeing today? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. Or join the conversation at our website, npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on the program, the kindness of strangers. But first, to Boston. Joining me now is Curt Nickisch. He's a reporter at member station WBUR in Boston. He joins us from a studio there. Welcome.

CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: Of course, glad to be here, Celeste.

HEADLEE: And Noreen Nasir, she witnessed the explosions and joins us now by phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Welcome, Noreen.

NOREEN NASIR: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Where were you, Noreen, when the explosions occurred?

NASIR: I was just about two blocks away from the finish line when I saw the two explosions occur. I had been at the sidelines of the race earlier that day, just cheering on some of the marathoners as they were running past. But this - this, then, took place a few hours later. I was crossing the street, and, you know, as I was crossing, I heard and saw, you know, the first explosion, and then just a matter of seconds later, the second explosion.

And it was a huge cloud of smoke that went up. And at first, you know, everyone kind of stopped. We stopped in the middle of the street, turned, and everyone was looking and started snapping pictures. But there was a sense of confusion, and people didn't really know, obviously, what happened.

There wasn't a sense of panic from where I stood, but, you know, everyone was just sort of confused. Obviously, everyone's expressions were very concerned. The police officers that were by us also seemed a little confused, as well. Their radios were not giving them any information at that moment, but then about a minute later, you know, they started getting messages like crazy coming in. It was really...

HEADLEE: Tell me about the moment when the mood changed because there were a lot of people who were actively tweeting or videotaping, and you can - there's this moment, this lull when people say, you know, what just happened? So tell me when you realized that this was something serious.

NASIR: Right, yeah. I think actually for me, from where I stood, you know, there was ultimately - first that sense of confusion, and it wasn't really until about 10 or 15 minutes later, as we got closer to the scene, that we saw then racers and their supporters and people just running through the streets, trying to get away from the scene, knocking down the barriers that were still up.

And so at first, you know, there was a bit of confusion and people just not really knowing what was happening, and then it took a few minutes before people started to then act with a sense of urgency, to try and get away, to try and find, you know, their family members or people that they were supporting in the race that they weren't in touch with. So it took a while for that to happen.

HEADLEE: And what is it like there today? What's the sense as you walk around the streets? I know some of them are still cordoned off, but what is Boston like now?

NASIR: Right. I'm in Cambridge today, and it's been, you know, the weather is very beautiful here today. People are out. People are walking around. It's pleasant, but it seems like it's a bit of a somber mood. The flags are at half-staff. But for now, at least, things are carrying on.

HEADLEE: That's Noreen Nasir. Stay with us, Noreen. She's in Cambridge, as you heard. She witnessed the explosions at the Boston Marathon yesterday. And also with us is Curt Nickisch. He's a reporter at member station WBUR in Boston. So bring us up to date, Curt. There's so much that we don't know. What do we - what have we confirmed?

NICKISCH: Well, we know at this point a little bit more about the bombs themselves. Law enforcement officials say that there were just two devices, those two explosions, and that the other things that they investigated that were suspicious were not devices at all. So it's just limited to those two explosions.

And a law enforcement source has told the Associated Press that these were homemade bombs, six-liter pressure cookers held in black duffle bags filled with small ball bearings and nails. And that's consistent with a lot of the characteristics of the injuries that we've been hearing from all of the hospitals all around the area that have been treating the patients there.

HEADLEE: And we were getting news that they're actually offering a $50,000 reward for information. But from what I understand the law enforcement in Boston is also asking people to submit their photos and their videos, anything that they may have.

NICKISCH: Absolutely. That place right there at the finish line may have been one of the most photographed places in the world in the minutes and hours leading up to the explosions. And so they've even posted people at the airport, and when they see people coming through with, you know, marathon gear or runners' gear, they're asking people to share any photos.

They say basically no detail is too small, and they want photos and videos of that area so that they can start to piece together who was there and when and hopefully answer some of the harder questions.

HEADLEE: Let's take a call here from somebody else who's also in Cambridge, just like Noreen, Marty. Our question today is for those of you, you know, in Boston or in the area, what are you seeing today?

MARTY: Well, I can say that I'm really at home in my apartment, but I went through I guess a certain amount of trauma around this in a sense of internal trauma, and when I first heard the news, it was so surrealistic. I was numbed. And it took me about half an hour, 45 minutes before I could really see that this was something that was really happening, it was a real thing.

And it was very sobering for me. So last night I called some of my friends to find out how they were doing, and three or four - four out of the five people that I called were either down in the area and decided not to go to the finish line, and, you know, bypassed it, which I was incredibly relieved to hear, and one person was not able to go because of circumstances, wanted to go down there.

So that really brought home the reality that this is something very real in my life, right here and now, and it's hard to believe. But then I started realizing that, you know, throughout the years of bombings and killings going on in countries all over the world, I always felt like I was inured and that I couldn't really feel the suffering of those people, you know, all over the world fully.

But now I have just a tiny taste of what people...

HEADLEE: What other people feel when they go through this.

MARTY: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get overwhelmed, but what they feel all over the world losing their loved ones, their children, the elderly, wives, husbands, brothers, you know. So it's a wakeup call for me to - you know, I do this life philosophy, it's a Buddhist practice where we say we turn poison into medicine. So this is great opportunity for the world to change poison into medicine and to create a peaceful world out of this negativity.

HEADLEE: Marty, thank you so much for your call, calling from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Obviously, a close shave there has brought it home for him. Let me go back to our reporter there, Curt Nickisch, who's with WBUR in Boston. What is the mood in Boston proper today?

NICKISCH: Well, I think what we heard before I can echo that pretty well because it is sort of somber and sad, but it's also a beautiful day, and just about everybody is out doing normal things. I drove along the Charles River esplanade, and there are people out running, jogging and doing, you know, what you do on a beautiful day like this.

And so it's got an eerie feeling because people are living freely and going outside, and they don't appear afraid, but it's still a very sad day, and a lot of people are very angry because this is kind of a special public event, the Boston Marathon, and so it's really hard for a lot of people to understand what anybody could sort of find wrong with this, you know, really inspiring...

HEADLEE: International...

NICKISCH: Yeah, right.

HEADLEE: Event. Let's get back to what we know or don't know in terms of details about the case, if we could, Curt. We've heard reports of law enforcement authorities searching an apartment. Can you give us more details on that?

NICKISCH: Yeah, I was actually at that apartment this morning. It's in Revere, which is just along the shore north of Boston, just a couple of miles away. In fact it's on the subway line. And so this apartment building is a high-rise apartment building but pretty old, sort of '70s era and run down. It's popular with students and couples. And they're all rental apartments in that building.

And police were there in one apartment on the fifth floor last night at least at about 11:15 local time to 1 in the morning. And one of the women I talked to who lives in that same building saw people going in with protective suits. Another person saw police coming out with just one paper bag.

And this morning, one of the roommates in that apartment came out and said that his roommate, who was injured in the blast, who is from Saudi Arabia, is a soccer fan, devout Muslim, but, you know, this student was - this roommate was actually going to class this morning. He was going to school. And police were no longer there.

It doesn't have the feel of a very sort of hot law enforcement scene, and indeed the Washington Post is reporting that police consider this Saudi national somebody who is a victim of the blast who is cooperating and is not a suspect.

HEADLEE: Yeah, as I understand it, two Saudi nationals who were injured in the blast, as well. And there's - at this point I want to be absolutely clear that there is no connection with anyone so far. We don't know who's responsible.

We're going to stick with Curt Nickisch, a reporter at member station WBUR in Boston. I want to say thank you to Noreen Nasir, who is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and joined us by phone from there. If you are in Boston, we want to know what you're seeing today. So give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our send us an email to talk@npr.org. We're going to talk more in just a minute. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Today, we're talking about what we've learned in the now nearly 24 hours since the two explosions near the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Earlier today, President Obama issued a proclamation honoring the victims. It directs that as, I quote, "mark of respect for the victims of the senseless acts of violence perpetrated on April 15, 2013, in Boston, the U.S. flag will be flown at half-staff across the country, not only at the White House and on public grounds but also around the world at embassies and naval stations abroad. And flags will stay at half-mast until sunset on April 20th."

If you're in Boston, we'd love to hear from you. Call and tell us what you're seeing today. The number is 800-989-8255. Or send us an email to talk@npr.org. You can also join us on Twitter, @totn is our handle. And we want to go to someone in the Boston area now. John(ph), thanks for calling.

JOHN: Sure, hi, how are you?

HEADLEE: I'm doing well, thank you so much. What are you seeing in Boston today?

JOHN: (Unintelligible)...

HEADLEE: Oh, I think we...

JOHN: It was fearful, but people were still helpful. And I gave a 70-year-old guy, who just I met from Colombia, who did the marathon in just over four hours, a ride back to his hotel because he couldn't get back on the train to get where he was going.

HEADLEE: So you're talking about - we have kind of a rough line with you, John, so I'm going to let you go. But what John is mentioning there is what we're calling random acts of kindness among strangers, which many people saw and witnessed yesterday and was inspiring to so many people both in the U.S. and around the world.

We're joined by Curt Nickisch, a reporter for our member station WBUR in Boston. And joining us now, Don Borelli, chief operating officer at The Soufan Group and a former FBI counterterrorism official. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program.

DON BORELLI: Thanks, Celeste.

HEADLEE: What's the first step in investigations like this one? What's the first you can determine?

BORELLI: Well, one of the first things you want to do is preserve the crime scene because a crime scene is perishable. You're going to have people that walk through it, you're going to have - you know, you want to restore normal activity as soon as possible. Of course this is an outdoor event, so you run the risk of a rainstorm, which can, you know, wash evidence away.

So the first thing you want to do, to the extent possible, is preserve the crime scene so the evidence collection specialists can get in there and start working that scene, collecting all the little fragments of things that might be able to identify the bomb and where it was placed and, you know, the kind of the MO of the bomber and all those type of things. So that's one of the first things that you want to do.

HEADLEE: Help me understand some of the information that's, you know, coming across my TV screen and newspapers. Investigators are talking about things like the bomb signature. And they're reporting to - trying to determine between whether the bomb was most likely by a domestic terrorist or a foreign national. What things are they looking for? What tells you that a bomb is domestic or not? What is a bomb signature?

BORELLI: Well, over the course of time we've learned that bomb makers, especially experienced bomb makers, tend to use the same methodology. When they have something that works, they go with it., you know, the old saying if it's not broken, don't fix it. So certain bomb makers get comfortable with certain designs. They use certain electronic componentry, certain shapes.

You know, for example, we even had the Yemeni bomb maker that was used in these - the chemicals. So he has a very unique signature, this is the individual that supplied the bomb for Abdulmutallab. So we've seen over the course of analyzing so many of these different devices that sometimes you can find similarities so you can know which particular, you know, group or person is responsible.

In a situation like this, chances are it's a little different. As it's being reported today, the actual bomb was a low-order explosive, meaning that it was probably supplied, you know, the explosive ordinance is black powder, and then they used various types of shrapnel, BBs and things like that, to create the fragments to cause injury, and then the encasement was a pressure cooker, as it's been reported.

So this is a relatively unsophisticated type of device. This is not the type of thing that you would see people in Afghanistan or Iraq doing. The - for example the plot that we had against the New York subway in 2009 with Najibullah Zazi. And the explosives were TATP, a chemical that you have to mix, and it takes a fair amount of training to be experienced enough to make a bomb like that, and he learned how to do that in his trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So, these are the things that investigators are looking for.

HEADLEE: You know, we've heard a lot about injuries that in fact were amputations, and I wonder why is that? What was about this explosion that resulted in those kind of injuries?

BORELLI: Well, you have all this fragment that's coming out, plus you have the immediate effect of the blast. So you've got, you know, extreme heat, right, you know, if you're close to the bomb, and then those fragments. And as I understand it, these devices were placed in backpacks and then sitting on the ground. So it almost worked like a landmine to a certain extent, where the fragment was spread horizontally but at relatively low level. So the impact, as you would expect, would be to the lower extremities.

HEADLEE: We're looking for your stories out there in the listening audience. If you're in Boston or around it, give us a call, tell us what you're seeing today at 800-989-8255. Right now Julie(ph) from Boston. What are you seeing in the city today?

JULIE: Yes, you know, I live just outside of the city, but even just on the outskirts of Boston you're seeing more - a heightened police presence everywhere, even just outside of the position. And weirder than that, the surreal nature of having helicopters overhead constantly, just that whap-whap-whap. It sounds like a movie a little bit, like, you know, "Good Morning, Vietnam" or something in Boston today; a little surreal. But gorgeous here today and still the most beautiful and amazing city in the world. So, surreal, but it is still Boston, and it's still a great place to be.

HEADLEE: That's Julie, thank you very much, calling from Boston, Massachusetts. And we have an email here from Maya, who says: The feeling in Boston is cautious, scared. The city is operating normally. People are going about their business as usual. However, there are less people in the streets. The city seems to be one-third as full as a normal weekday. Everyone just seems in shock.

With us on the line is Don Borelli, who is chief operating officer at The Soufan Group, former FBI counterterrorism official, and also Curt Nickisch, who is a reporter at member station WBUR. Curt, what about travel? Were people who expected to travel home right after the marathon, are they still stuck in Boston? Were people able to move on?

NICKISCH: Well, there were thousands and thousands, right, some 25,000 runners and many from out of state and from around the world, so a lot of different stories. But the airport kept running, and so - and most airlines were very flexible and friendly to anybody who wanted to change their itinerary.

The thing that was tough was that a lot of folks weren't able to get to their bags at the end of the race, if they were stopped short and weren't able to finish the race. And so - and part of this area, originally 15 blocks, now sort of closed down to 12 blocks, although people can still get in and out, that had a lot of hotels where a lot of people were staying.

And so what sprung up immediately were offers from people around the city, letting people, runners and visitors, stay overnight. And people are still adding to that list. There's a fraternity at MIT saying we've got 12 extra beds, somebody else in South Boston saying, you know, it isn't much, but I've got a couch. And so a lot of folks did end up in places where they weren't planning to spend the night, and the city did have some shelters.

But most people were inconvenienced, but they've been managing.

HEADLEE: Don, how atypical or typical is it that we know so little at this point? Is this just law enforcement officials remaining close-mouthed and not revealing what they know, or do we really know this little?

BORELLI: Well, I think law enforcement officials know more than they're willing to disclose at this point. Obviously, they don't want to compromise the investigation. But that, you know, may not be entirely true. I mean, it's hard to say. You get - when you have an event that happens like this, sometimes you get a flood of information that comes in.

You have the physical evidence, you have photographs, not only from people that are participating or, you know, the bystanders watching the race but then all the security cameras. And then you have people calling in, you have informants that - all good FBI agents and detectives have informants, and no doubt that they've put their requests out on the street to try to find information about this.

So right now the real thing that they're working through is just taking this vast amount of information and trying to sift through it and figure out which of these leads is the most important, the highest priority and which ones can we wash out. So it can be a big undertaking. And I think officials are being very cautious not to, you know, approach this with, you know, kind of tunnel vision and leave all open - all options open whether it's domestic, international, a single lone wolf or group of people. I think all options are kind of being explored at this point.

HEADLEE: But many law enforcement officials said there was zero chatter in advance of these explosions to warn them that there was even the slightest hint that it could be coming. Is that atypical?

BORELLI: Well, look, we saw in Times Square a similar situation. We had an individual that was not on anybody's radar until he parked a vehicle in Times Square. And thankfully, he did not build the device properly, and it started smoking. And then, you know, an alert vendor tipped law enforcement, and then you have the, you know, the end of that. So it's - look, the people that are involved in these things are also smart. They've realized that there are certain tripwires out there that law enforcement has in place that make them vulnerable.

And if they're, you know, adept enough to avoid those tripwires - so, for example, you know, if they're really, you know, smart, they're not going to go on a blog or, you know, YouTube and start talking about, you know, their plans to do this and do that. They're going to keep their plans to themselves. They're not going to alert their family. They're not going to talk to their friends. You know, if you really have somebody that's determined to stay under the radar until the very last minute and launch the attack, this is the biggest challenge for law enforcement.

I mean, most of the attacks that we have been - that we've thwarted, that we were able to stop before anybody was killed was done with good intelligence collection, which is really the key, is to get the information out front to allow you to thwart the attack before the perpetrators have a chance to launch it. But to gather that intelligence, you have to have sources, and those sources have to have access to the information. And if somebody wants to keep it just to themselves and not share it with anybody, law enforcement has a very big challenge.

HEADLEE: We're taking calls also from people in and around Boston today on what you're seeing in the city. Karen is on the line with us from Boston right now. Karen, what do you see in Boston today?

KAREN: Hi. Yeah. I was just in the North End, and the mood is definitely solemn. People are smiling at one another quietly, but there's definitely a air of, you know, business as usual. But something that was really striking to me was that everyone is wearing their Boston Marathon jackets. So everywhere you look you've got the blue and the yellow jackets, and people are even wearing the medals. So aside from, you know, the solemn feeling, there's also this kind of resilience and this testimony that we're here for the marathon. And we're still here, and we're all still, you know, trying to make sense of what happened, I guess.

HEADLEE: Karen, thank you so much, calling from Boston. If you'd like to call from Boston or in that area to let us know what you're seeing today, the number is 800-989-8255. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let me go back to Don Borelli, who's a former FBI counterterrorism official, now with The Soufan Group. Don, what you were talking about just a moment ago about the fact that there was no chatter leading up to it. I'm making a huge leap here, but is something like that give you a clue that it's perhaps a lone wolf instead with an organization? I mean, is it - it must be easier with the fewer people you have involved to keep things more quiet?

BORELLI: Obviously, I mean the less people you have involved in a thing, the better chance you have of keeping a secret. And, you know, I think it may even be a little bit early to say there was no chatter. I mean, I think, you know, there's - law enforcement officials, both domestically and internationally, are going to be looking through all of this vast amount of intelligence information that's collected every day, and they'll be trying to look at that now through a lens of what happened in Boston. So maybe that there was some shred of chatter that at the time didn't make sense but put in context with what happened yesterday, maybe there was a clue that was, you know, just - but it didn't, you know...

HEADLEE: It didn't trip a wire, yeah.

BORELLI: ...rise up to the surface. Exactly. So these things will continue. They'll be looking at that. As of now, it looks like this event was completely without warning, no advance intelligence, not even a hint that this event was specifically targeted. But whether or not it was specifically targeted, law enforcement officials and, you know, the FBI and the JTTF - anytime you have a special event, your default position is that it's been targeted. And that's why you have all of these resources pre-deployed.

That's why you have a command post set up and ready to go. You have all the major, you know, executives sitting in one area so that if decisions need to be made, they can be made jointly. So that's the default position; that it is targeted, whether or not you have specific information or not.

HEADLEE: Joining us now is Dr. Eric Goralnick. He is the medical director for emergency preparedness at Brigham and Women's Hospital, joining us on a phone from his office in Boston, Massachusetts. And, Doctor, you responded to the scene. You helped coordinate efforts. What did you see in the aftermath of the explosions?

DR. ERIC GORALNICK: Good afternoon. Thank you. We were actually - I was with the team of nurses and we were caring for several runners. And at the opposite side of the Prudential Center, and essentially the mall at the Prudential Center became overflowed with several people screaming and yelling. We didn't hear the blasts. But once we recognized there was an issue, we coordinated with the mall security, and were escorted to the scene and actually very promptly guide the ambulance and went back to Brigham and Women's Hospital to assist with efforts there.

HEADLEE: Is Boston - is the Boston medical community overwhelmed? Or how are they handling all of the injuries?

GORALNICK: You know, we train for this. This is obviously a very catastrophic event, but it's an amazing thing despite all of the chaos to see our teams come together throughout the Boston medical community and support each other and best care for our patients.

HEADLEE: That's Dr. Eric Goralnick from the Brigham and Women's Hospital, medical director for emergency preparedness there. He joined us by phone from his office. Thank you so much, Dr. Goralnick.

GORALNICK: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Also, I want to say thank you to Curt Nickisch, reporter at member station, WBUR in Boston. He joined us from a studio there. And Don Borelli, who's chief operating officer at The Soufan Group, former FBI counterterrorism official and joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks to all of you.

BORELLI: Thank you.

NICKISCH: Sure thing.

HEADLEE: Up next: in disaster, there's also opportunity, a chance to help those who are in need and to respond to tragedy with kindness. We're going to hear some inspiring stories from Boston after a short break. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.