The fatal explosions at the Boston Marathon are a reminder of how rarely terrorist acts occur or succeed nowadays. Even rarer are the sort of “multiple,” apparently coordinated, explosions that took place on Monday, with their frightening echo of the simultaneous hijackings of airliners on 9/11.
Partly that is a result of assiduous police work by the FBI, local law enforcement, and other agencies. In several cases in recent years, the FBI has successfully conducted sting operations in which individual, would-be bombers have plotted what they thought were acts of terror, only to find that the Feds had been setting them up. This was true of Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, a Bangladeshi man accused of trying to blow up New York's Federal Reserve building in October 2012, and Farooque Ahmed, whom the FBI secretly guided into a Washington Metro bombing plot in 2010.
A closer call occurred in May 2010, when Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani émigré, sought to detonate an explosive-packed vehicle in Times Square. It failed to work when two street vendors alerted police. Shahzad was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Terrorism by right-wing groups or individuals such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh has also declined in recent years. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 killed 168 people. A year later, an antiabortion and antigay extremist, Eric Rudolph, set off a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics, killing one spectator and injuring 111 others.
Nonetheless, U.S. authorities have been worried for years that terrorists might deploy a domestic improvised explosive device in a crowd, possibly at a well-attended event like the Boston Marathon. Terrorism experts have grown increasingly concerned that lone jihadists, perhaps seemingly integrated into American society as Shahzad was, might be inspired by Internet preachers such as Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki's anti-American message was apparently the motivation for the November 2009 massacre by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. Awlaki was later killed by a drone strike in Yemen.
The Boston bombings, despite appearing to be the result of low-grade explosives, killed at least two people and may have injured more than 100, according to early reports. As a result, they could come to be seen as more sophisticated than recent failed attempts. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, in a statement Monday afternoon, gave few details but said authorities were investigating the two near-simultaneous explosions at the marathon as possibly having been coordinated with another apparent explosion, or a fire, at the John F. Kennedy Library, which he said occurred more than an hour later. “We’re not certain these incidents are related, but we are treating them as though they are,” he said. Police later suggested the JFK library incident was unrelated.