BOSTON — The bombs that ripped through the Boston Marathon crowd were fashioned out of ordinary kitchen pressure cookers, packed with nails and other fiendishly lethal shrapnel, and hidden in duffel bags left on the ground, people close to the investigation said Tuesday.
President Barack Obama branded the attack an act of terrorism, whether carried out by a solo bomber or group, and the FBI vowed to “go to the ends of the Earth” to find out which it was.
Scores of victims remained in Boston hospitals, many with grievous injuries, a day after the twin explosions near the marathon’s finish line killed three people, wounded more than 170 and reawakened fears of terrorism. A 9-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy were among 17 victims listed in critical condition.
Officials zeroed in on the nature of the bombs, discovering they were made of common 1.6-gallon pressure cookers, one containing shards of metal and ball bearings, the other packed with nails, and both stuffed into duffel bags, said a source close to the investigation.
A second person briefed on the investigation confirmed that at least one of the explosives was made of a pressure cooker. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still going on.
Pressure-cooker explosives have been used in international terrorism, and have been recommended for lone-wolf operatives by Al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen.
But information on how to make the bombs is readily found online, and U.S. officials said Americans should not rush to judgment in linking the attack to overseas terrorists.
The bombs exploded 10 or more seconds apart, tearing off victims’ limbs and spattering streets with blood, instantly turning the festive race into a hellish scene of confusion, horror and heroics.
The blasts killed 8-year-old Martin Richard of Boston, 29-year-old Krystle Campbell of Medford, Mass., and a third victim whose name has not been released.
Doctors who treated the wounded corroborated reports that the bombs were packed with shrapnel intended to cause mayhem.
“We’ve removed BBs and we’ve removed nails from kids. One of the sickest things for me was just to see nails sticking out of a little girl’s body,” said Dr. David Mooney, director of the trauma centre at Boston Children’s Hospital.
At Massachusetts General Hospital, all four amputations performed there were above the knee, with no hope of saving more of the legs, said Dr. George Velmahos, chief of trauma surgery.
“It wasn’t a hard decision to make,” he said. “We just completed the ugly job that the bomb did.”
In the wake of the attack, security was stepped up around the White House and across the country. Police massed at federal buildings and transit centres in the nation’s capital, critical response teams deployed in New York City, and security officers with bomb-sniffing dogs spread through Chicago’s Union Station.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urged Americans “to be vigilant and to listen to directions from state and local officials.” But she said there was no evidence the bombings were part of a wider plot.
Pressure-cooker explosives have been used in Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Pakistan, according to a July 2010 intelligence report by the FBI and the Homeland Security Department. One of the three devices used in the May 2010 Times Square attempted bombing was a pressure cooker, the report said.
“Placed carefully, such devices provide little or no indication of an impending attack,” the report said.
Investigators said they have not yet determined what was used to set off the Boston explosives. Typically, these bombs have an initiator, switch and explosive charge, according to a 2004 warning from Homeland Security.
“We will go to the ends of the Earth to identify the subject or subjects who are responsible for this despicable crime, and we will do everything we can to bring them to justice,” said Richard DesLauriers, FBI agent in charge in Boston.
The Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the 2010 attempt in Times Square, has denied any part in the Boston Marathon attack.
Al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen gave a detailed description of how to make a bomb using a pressure cooker in a 2010 issue of Inspire, its English-language online publication aimed at would-be terrorists acting alone.
In a chapter titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom,” it says “the pressurized cooker is the most effective method” for making a simple bomb, and it provides directions.
Naser Jason Abdo, a former U.S. soldier, was sentenced to life in prison last year after being convicted of planning to use a pair of bombs made from pressure cookers in an attack on a Texas restaurant frequented by soldiers from nearby Fort Hood. He was found with the Inspire article.
Investigators are combing surveillance tapes and pictures from the Boston attack and appealing to the public to turn over personal photos and video that might yield clues.
“This is probably one of the most photographed areas in the country yesterday,” said Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis. He said two security sweeps of the marathon route had been conducted before the bombing.
Boston police and firefighter unions announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to arrests.
Obama said officials do not know who carried out the attack or why — “whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual.”
But he said “any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror.” And he declared: “The American people refuse to be terrorized.”