Boston Terrorism, The Investigation: Video and Photos

by Stephen Bryen

[Update: there are various reports that a suspect may have been identified based on video evidence.  In addition, it is reported that “The pieces [of] recovered parts include part of a circuit board, which might have been used to detonate a device.”]

As this is written Federal agents supported by local and state police are trying to find out who placed the two bombs that exploded at the Boston Marathon.  So far the “who” question is unanswered. (see

There is a lot of confusion.  There are claims that it was a professional job, and equally strong arguments that it was done by some amateur, that it looks like a “low tech” bomb and the perpetrators are amateurs.

What are we supposed to believe?

The pressure cooker bomb is something developed by al-Qaeda and even put out in publications by them.  Isn’t it logical to believe that any “wanna-be” terrorist was certainly reading al-Qaeda’s literature? (see of Pressure Cooker Bomb

But there are linked questions.  Setting off two bombs at different locations either means both bombs had timers and were placed by one or more bombers, or they were set off remotely, perhaps by a cellphone.

There are two implications.

One is that if there was a single bomber he would have been carrying two backpacks, and they together would be fairly heavy and noticeable.  It follows, given all the pictures being taken and surveillance cameras in the area, that someone with two backpacks should be decidedly visible to the cameras.

If no one is looking for someone with two backpacks, then either the bombs were carried in a different way, maybe in a baby stroller, by a single person, or (as is more likely the case) there was more than one bomber.

What bothers me so far is the lack of (at least) public attention to such detail.

The second issue is that bombs of this sort require careful assembly with some trial and error.  Knowing whether the bombs were professional or amateur matters less than the fact that any terrorist or terrorist group would want to test the design and make sure it worked.  One clue is to see if multiple pressure cooker purchases can be identified.

I fancy myself a cook.  And buying a pressure cooker takes some effort -you don’t find them everywhere.  So one line of investigation is to try and see who sells the model pressure cooker used, and see if there were any multiple sales.  Pressure cookers are not a fast moving item, and there are not many brands and outlets.  This could yield clues, since if they were bought online (how I got mine) or in a store, maybe there is some traceable information (video cams in stores, internet transactions). (see!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/boston-marathon-bomb-photos.jpg&imgrefurl=

The same is true of ball bearings.  You can buy lots of them in an auto parts store, for example, but you have to smash them apart to get the ball bearings.  That offers another place to look for evidence.

The detonation system remains a mystery.  It surprises me that so far none of the detonation system appears to have been found.  In many IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, which normally feature much larger explosives than used in Boston, parts of the detonation system have been found –something really important if your job is to try and neutralize IED devices.

It would seems very possible that the device and explosive materials would have been tested by the terrorists.  It is hard to hide tests like this, and a wider net, looking for explosions that may have been heard elsewhere and which seemed strange, could help trace back to the source.  I would guess it is extremely unlikely that the Boston explosions were put together with no testing and worked flawlessly.  Either there was a professional bomb maker with lots of experience, or prototypes of the device had to be tested.

Similarly we still know nothing about the explosive material itself.  By now the FBI probably knows, but it is being kept quiet.

Another  issue is video and faces. This remains a hugely important forensic tool but there remains a lot of work to be done to improve technology.

Surveillance cameras are everywhere, and increasingly they are digital instead of analog cameras and provide high quality images.  And people everywhere are walking around with powerful digital cameras embedded in their mobile phones.  Certainly in the case of the Boston Marathon there has to be terabytes of video that can be surveyed.

But here lies the problem –looking for what and how?  To go through all the video manually assumes that the auditor knows what he or she is looking for, has some sort of a template, and can remember one video from the next and relate them appropriately.  This is definitely hard to do, eats up a lot of time, and delays the hunt for the terrorists.

Hitachi, the Japanese mega-company, has come up with a solution that is “out of the box” and unique. They have devised a way to scan through millions of images and find needles in the haystack, and do it in a few seconds.

Here is a concrete example.  The police have at the hospital a possible “person of interest” who was wounded in the blast.  He denies any involvement in the bombing, and so do his friends.  How would Hitachi help that?

By reviewing video imaging with the face of the person of interest as the key data, anytime on any video the face appears it will be tracked.  This means the movements of the person of interest, so far as he appears on one video or another, will be identified -including what he is doing in sequence and with whom he was associated, if anyone.

The Hitachi technology is very important and it has been presented to the Department of Homeland Security.  As of now it has not been adopted.  It would greatly help the Boston investigation.

While everyone prefers preventing a terrorist attack than having to try and pick up the pieces afterward, the search for evidence and the location of the individual or individuals responsible is not only very important, but it is essential.  Let’s pray our law enforcement authorities are successful.

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