The DC Pipe Bomber Is Still at Large But They Left Some Key Clues

The bombs were planted the night before the Capitol insurrection, and remain one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of that day.
February 25, 2021, 1:19pm
FBI
Surveillance video of the suspected pipe bomber. (FBI)

On the night of January 5, a masked person in a grey hoodie and Nike Air Max Speed Turf sneakers planted two pipe bombs in Washington, D.C.—one at the RNC headquarters, the other a few blocks away at the DNC headquarters.

A passerby spotted one of the devices the next day at around 12:45 p.m., nestled between a rat trap and a recycling bin by the RNC down the street from the Capitol. Thirty minutes later, during a sweep of the area, police discovered the second device by the DNC. Meanwhile, an angry pro-Trump mob was crashing through the Capitol barriers just blocks away. 

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The discovery of the bombs on January 6 added another sinister layer to the violent Capitol insurrection that left five dead, and has remained one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of that day. 

Nearly two months later, authorities have arrested 275 people from 40 states in connection to the violent uprising, aided in part by photographic evidence and social media. But the bomber has remained at large, despite the FBI increasing the reward for information to $100,000 over the weekend.

Bomb investigations are a tense business because they require a careful, thorough, and accurate analysis of components involved, and close examination for any forensic evidence the bomb-maker might have left on the devices, like hairs, fingerprints or DNA. There’s also a time crunch: Experts who have worked high-profile bomb cases told VICE News that bomb-makers, when they aren’t caught, tend to keep going. 

“This person is still on the loose. And as we have seen with past bomb-makers, if they are able to stay out there and keep experimenting, working on their ‘art,’ they can become more sophisticated,” said Scott Stewart, a former State Department special agent and Vice President of TorchStone Global, a strategic security advisory company. And over time, Stewart said, those devices can become more dangerous, even deadly. 

There are cautionary tales within the patterns of behavior exhibited by some of America’s most notorious bombers. Ted Kazynski, known as the “Unabomber,” waged a mail bombing campaign between 1978 and 1995 while evading authorities and becoming more sophisticated. “It took him seven attempts to finally make a deadly device,” Stewart said. 

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Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh also spent years learning and perfecting his trade. He began experimenting with homemade explosives, including pipe bombs, in 1992. Three years later, he mounted a 5,000-pound homemade bomb onto the back of a rental truck and blew it up in front of a federal building, killing 168 people. 

Over the weekend, the FBI re-circulated its bulletin asking the public for tips that could help them identify the DC pipe bomber, including grainy surveillance images showing the suspect on the evening of January 5, plus a couple of photographs of the devices. 

The fact that there hasn’t been an arrest yet in that could speak to the thoroughness of the investigation. It could also suggest, however, that the person who made the bombs was extremely careful not to leave any forensics on the devices (the Unabomber, for example, took great pains to ensure his bombs were clean from any identifying evidence). 

It could also mean that whoever is responsible for building the bombs has never run afoul of the law and isn’t on law enforcement’s radar whatsoever. 

“I used to tell troops and officers: You’re probably not gonna catch a guy on their first one,” said Barry Black, a former FBI special agent and master bomb technician who worked the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. 

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There’s a bomb. Now what?

One of the things investigators will be looking at closely is whether the pipe bombs, placed between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on January 5, had any relationship to the attack on the Capitol the following day. 

At a Tuesday congressional hearing on the security failures at the Capitol, former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund (who resigned after the attack) and Acting D.C. Police Chief Michael Contee testified that they believe the bombs were placed intentionally to divert police resources away from the mob. 

If true, that theory could bolster prosecutors’ growing assessment: that the attack on the Capitol was premeditated. 

But Stewart is skeptical about the argument that the pipe bombs were part of a broader conspiracy, citing a lack of “tactical connection” between the devices and the Capitol attack. He notes that the devices weren’t concealed particularly well—a passerby on her way to do her laundry happened to spot one of them while walking down an alleyway by the RNC, which happened to coincide with a pro-Trump mob storming the Capitol. 

There’s also no indication that a bomb threat was called in prior to the discovery of the devices, said Stewart. And finally, he says, the design of the devices undermine the argument that they were meant to go off as a diversionary tactic. 

They appear to have been time bombs, constructed using relatively simple components, including steel pipes, a mechanical timer, steel wool, alligator clips, and an unidentified powder. They were described as “live” devices, due to the viable explosive substance inside the pipes. But it’s not clear when they were intended to detonate. The mechanical timing device looks similar to a kitchen timer. 

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The person who found the first device told the Washington Post that she couldn’t hear any ticking, that the timer was set to 20 minutes, and she couldn’t tell if the timer was still active. 

The fact the devices were placed at night, in a relatively uncrowded area, also offers some insight into the bomber’s goal. “When we look at the time and placement of these devices, it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t an attempt to cause casualties,” said Stewart. “At least to my eye, it seemed intended to explode, to deliver a message, not to harm or kill people. 

Bombs were not very sophisticated — but that’s all relative

Once an explosive device is recovered, the first step is to render them safe. The FBI certifies all the non-military bomb technicians in the US. FBI bomb technicians will typically join a bomb squad from the local police department to investigate the devices and figure out what to do next. 

Preserving the bombs is the ideal outcome, because the devices will always contain clues about who planted them.  

After the bombs are rendered safe, they’ll be shipped off to a lab. There, analysts will determine whether the devices were definitely made by the same person by establishing the bomb maker’s “signature.”

“Bombers tend to fall into a habit and do some of the same things. It’s like handwriting — that’s often called a signature,” said Black. For example, wires might be twisted in a certain way or a certain number of times, or the device might use a particular combination of components. 

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The bomb maker’s signature will be added into the TEDAC — Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, which the FBI describes as the “bomb library of America.” It’s a massive database of information on improved explosive devices (IEDs) that have been collected in the US but also from other countries. This will flag any similarities with any other devices that have been discovered (the system, which was established in 2003, is particularly helpful for tracking serial bombers). 

The D.C. pipe bombs appeared to be fairly unsophisticated in terms of the components they utilized and how they were put together. “The style is primitive. It was a decent device — it appeared that all the components were there, but the way it was put together was pretty hamfisted. Looks to me like someone who wasn’t used to working with electrical wiring and circuits,” said Stewart. 

In the past, it might have been easier to understand where the bomb-maker learned to make their device. “Back in the day, but not that long ago, people used underground books, like ‘The Poor Man’s James Bond’,” said Black. “Your average library didn’t have them. You’d order them via mail and they’d come wrapped in brown paper.”

After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, prosecutors initially alleged that the bombers had learned to make their devices from online instructions printed in “Inspire,” a magazine published by an Al Qaeda affiliate, four years prior to the attack. But after closer analysis and comparison with other devices in the TEDAC system, FBI technicians concluded that the bombs were actually the result of a much more complex and sophisticated recipe than the one in Inspire. 

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But these days, would-be domestic terrorists who lack military training in explosives are able to access thousands of PDFs that contain myriad recipes for bombs, often uploaded to shadowy corners of the internet frequented by extremists. “It’s troubling for those of us in the field,” said Black. “There is so much information available.” 

“What I would say in the most generic sense, is a lot of people don’t make bombs. Making an IED is dangerous, so when you say sophisticated, it’s a relative term,” said Black. “The devices we’ve encountered overseas that use high-speed integrated circuits would be more electronically complex than a device that uses a washing machine timer or an alarm clock.”

Forensics

After the devices are logged into the TEDAC, they’ll undergo a careful forensic analysis. 

“Two intact devices like that are a forensic bonanza,” said Stewart, Typically, analysts will collect any kind of evidence they can from the device, like hairs, fingerprints, or any other DNA. 

That sort of information will be run through national crime databases to see if the person who made the devices had ever been booked for a crime. The fact that the FBI still haven’t made an arrest suggests that even if they were able to collect forensics from the bombs, they still haven’t found a match. 

That could mean that the individual who made the bomb has never run into any issues with the law. “Maybe someone somewhat young, inexperienced, who hasn’t popped up on the radar,” said Stewart. 

While many of the faces who flooded DC around January 6 may have been familiar to law enforcement due to their affiliation with extremist groups or past criminal records, the majority of the crowd were average Americans who chose to engage in violence that day. 

“Not everyone’s DNA is available in databases. The whole thing you saw, that episode there,” said Michael Bouchard, former assistant director of the ATF, in reference to the January 6 insurrection, “it was a whole lot of people who never had a criminal record, who got involved in something that day that you hope they would regret.”