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Austin bomber was probably self-taught and that's scaring law enforcement

The ability to lay a trip wire quickly without blowing himself up showed a high level of skill and confidence.

by Tess Owen
Mar 22 2018, 3:30pm

Investigators are still trying to piece together what motivated Mark Anthony Conditt, a 23-year-old white male from an Austin suburb, to embark on his bombing spree, but one thing we do know: he was a remarkably skilled bomb-maker.

Indeed, his devices were so brutally effective, profilers looking at the case suspected he’d had some sort of military or paramilitary training. In a 25-minute video confession recorded on his cell phone, Conditt described in detail how he built the six bombs with different detonation mechanisms, smokeless gunpowder, and batteries from Asia.

But according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Conditt did not have a military background or training. He was homeschooled, apparently unemployed, and had previously worked in sales and as a computer technician. Family members have described him as a “deep thinker” and “low-key and peaceful.”

“You don’t get to that record of reliability of devices exploding without a lot of practice”

None of that rules out some kind of paramilitary training of some kind, but it seems likely that Conditt acquired an impressive array of skills on his own, aided by the abundance of training materials and how-tos online, and that's concerning to law enforcement around the country.

“You don’t get to that record of reliability of devices exploding without a lot of practice,” said Scott Stewart, a former U.S. State Department special agent who now supervises terrorism and security issues for Stratfor, a global intelligence firm.

Read: Austin bomber's confession video is the "outcry of a very challenged young man"

In his three week reign of terror on Austin, Conditt showed the ability to build bombs with three types of detonation devices: three packaged bombs detonated when opened; one detonated by a tripwire; and two others sent by mail via Fedex. (He killed himself with a seventh bomb.)

Experts said it is rare for a bomb-maker to become that proficient without extensive practice and training. The tripwire bomb, for example, would have to be done in broad daylight, at dusk or shortly after, on a residential street in plain view.

He would have had to place it, stretch the wire across the path, attach it to the “For Sale” sign that he’d stolen, and then activate it by removing a pin. Overall, that should take anywhere between two to five minutes, depending on the bomber’s skill level and composure. Tripwires can be tricky even for experts, and it’s not unusual for those types of devices to malfunction.

“Four successful detonations is also very telling,” Steward said. “It’s showing us that he’s got a fairly broad background in his understanding of explosives or booby traps. He’s able to shift in short order from one type to another.”

“It took the unabomber seven years to get deadly”

Stewart also pointed out what he called Conditt’s “operational tempo,” which in this case was very high. Law enforcement likes to benchmark unabomber Ted Kaczynski, a domestic terrorist who killed three people and injured 23 others with bombs between 1978 and 1996.

“It took the unabomber seven years to get deadly,” Stewart said.

Read: Everything we know about the death of the Austin bomber

Conditt, by comparison, worked very quickly and was prolific.

“The operational tempo here — to go in and attack this week, even after the attention last week — tells us he feels very competent and secure in his capabilities,” Stewart said.

In the past, bombers left telltale signatures with their devices because they typically only knew how to build one type. Prior to the internet, many bombers learned their trade from the 1971 “The Anarchist Cookbook,” distributed during the counterculture era amid anti-Vietnam war protests.

Michael Bouchard, president of the ATF Association who supervised the ATF investigation of the Pentagon on 9/11 attack, and said that because of the internet, aspiring bomb-makers have been able to broaden their skills, which has made it tougher for investigators.

“Years ago before there was so much on the internet, bomb makers typically stuck to the style they were comfortable with,” said Bouchard. “They wouldn’t want to take the risk of detonating themselves.”

And yet access to instructions and even videos doesn’t fully explain how Conditt got proficient. Stewart stressed that even if Conditt had access to detailed tutorials, it’s impossible to become a good bomber overnight. It would have taken time and dedication.

“The most critical component here would have been time,” he said. “The time to tinker with circuits, device construction, how to successfully put things into a box, and then test those circuits without hurting yourself.”

“I can watch YouTube videos on how to play the cello,” he continued. “But if I actually pick up a cello, it’s going to take some time to master the scale, the fingering and the bowing.”

What’s left is to learn is Conditt’s motive, and if he received any help in carrying out the attacks that left two dead, six injured, and sowed terror in the typically laid-back Texan city for three weeks. Experts said that when it comes to investigations into serial bombers or serial killers, the most important thing you can do is keep an open mind.

“It can be dangerous if people get tunnel vision,” said Bouchard. “I was one of the three lead people on the Beltway Sniper case [a series of coordinated attacks in the DC area in 2002 that left 10 dead]. We had all these high profile experts saying it just had to be a trained military sniper.”

In the end, it was two men, neither of whom had military training.

Cover image: Law enforcement personnel investigate the scene where the Texas bombing suspect blew himself up on the side of a highway north of Austin in Round Rock, Texas, U.S., March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

This article originally appeared on VICE News US.