Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Absent a motive, the serial bombing attacks in Texas hadn’t been labeled with the term. Now, police say the suspect has been killed.
Before dawn on Wednesday morning, law enforcement officers located a vehicle they said was used by the suspect in a series of fatal package bomb attacks in Austin. While local and federal officers worked to apprehend the suspect near a hotel in Round Rock, north of Austin, the suspect detonated a bomb inside his vehicle, injuring a member of the Austin Police Department SWAT team. Another officer also shot the suspect, police said.
The suspect, who police identified only as a 24-year-old white man, is dead. Since his whereabouts over the last 24 hours are still unknown, there could still be package bombs at large, and an investigation is still underway. “We do not understand what motivated him to do what he did,” Austin Police Department chief Brian Manley said in a briefing.
The apprehension of the suspect came after an explosion in Central Texas on Tuesday added new urgency to the investigation of the series of fatal package bomb attacks.
Just after midnight on Tuesday morning, a package bound for Austin (and mailed from Austin) containing nails and other metal shrapnel exploded at a FedEx facility near San Antonio, injuring a worker at the ground sorting station. That was only the first serious incident of the day.
Police also responded to a suspicious package alert at a different FedEx location adjacent to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. That package, which did not detonate, was confirmed as the sixth bomb in Central Texas this month. FedEx has confirmed that the same individual sent both packages on Tuesday.
Later on Tuesday evening, Austin police responded to another reported explosion in South Austin that injured at least one person. Police later described it as an “incendiary device” with no apparent link to the other bombings.
Four explosions since March 2 that police know to be linked, all in Austin, have shaken the city, killing two people and injuring several others. Police have been working with the FBI and Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to determine whether the explosions on Tuesday are part of the broader pattern. Meanwhile, the White House issued a statement saying that it sees no “nexus to terrorism” in the Texas bombings.
That’s not what it feels like from Austin, says Ami Pedahzur, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and the founding director of the university’s Institute for Israel Studies. “Clearly, in terms of the impact [in Austin], it’s the essence of terror,” Pedahzur says.
Authorities were already on high alert this week after an explosion in Austin on Sunday night added a deadly new vector to the attacks. While the single explosion on March 2 and two explosions on March 12 were caused by package bombs left outside homes, the fourth explosion was triggered by a tripwire. Austin Police Department chief Brian Manley said in a briefing that the tripwire development showed “a higher level of sophistication.”
This forensic information likely put investigators no closer to understanding the motive behind the attacks. But the bombs themselves showed a degree of capability that is usually seen among state security actors—one reason letter bombs are so uncommon. (And, when they work as designed, so effective as a means of terrorizing a large population.)
“When you think about delivering a bomb in the mail, there are so many moving parts that have to align,” Pedahzur says. “Explosives can be very sensitive. They can be triggered or they can fail.”
In remarks on camera Tuesday, President Donald Trump directly spoke about the Texas bombings for the first time since the attacks began three weeks ago. “These are sick people and we have to find them as soon as possible,” he said. “We have to find them, really, immediately.” The White House vowed to punish the attackers, but Austin does not appear to be fully on Trump’s radar. (The @realDonaldTrump account tweeted about National Agriculture Day at around noon, which was also the topic that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders opened her briefing with today.) The distinction that serial bombing attacks do not constitute acts of terror—however terrorized Austinites may feel—is a distinction that should not be glossed over.
Austin residents have called in hundreds of reports of suspicious packages since March 12, the day the second and third explosions happened. The Austin Police Department said on Tuesday they have received a total of 1,257 calls. Police responded to 420 suspicious package alerts alone between Monday and Tuesday morning. There is ample evidence that the fear of terrorism in Austin is real, even if the label has not been formally applied to the bombing campaign that is now underway.
So, what makes a series of terrifying attacks against civilians terrorism? “The definition is always very elusive, and really depends on who is defining,” Pedahzur says. “For academic purposes, we look at the motivations of the perpetrator, and these should be political agendas that are being manifested through acts of terrorizing populations. In this case, we have to wait and see what motivated the individual. But in terms of the impact, it’s clearly terrorizing.”
A political motivation is one key to broadly defining a violent atrocity as terrorism. In a grim sense, the medium is also the message. “Terrorism is a weapon that takes advantage of the media,” Pedahzur says. “Terrorists in general, those who perpetrate [terror] for political purposes, use the media to convey a message. They are not interested in targeting specific individuals, but rather, terrifying larger groups of people.”
It’s possible that the White House may have felt the need to clarify that there’s no evidence that Texas is being bombed by ISIS or Al-Qaeda, two organizations familiar with using improvised explosives to further their aims.
Still, it’s hard not to notice the president’s reluctance to apply a label to attacks in Austin that he has used freely in other circumstances. There was his comment that “both sides” were to blame for a lethal vehicle attack against a crowd of counter-protesters during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Last October, Trump was reluctant to even address a horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. But within four hours of a fatal car attack in Manhattan by a lone wolf inspired by ISIS later that month, he condemned it as a terrorist attack in a tweet.
The attacks in Austin could be the work of another lone wolf, though the public as yet knows nothing of the attacker’s motivations. Around the city, the response they have inspired is reminiscent of the fear that seized the Washington, D.C., metro area in 2002, when a pair of snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, killed 17 people and injured 10 others over a period of 10 months. The motives of the “Beltway Sniper” and his accomplice were difficult to discern, even after the fact. But the seemingly indiscriminate nature of the shootings—coming so soon after the terror attacks of September 11—effectively terrorized the D.C. metro area, and the Virginia jury in Muhammad’s trial agreed that the attacks constituted an act of terrorism.
The prospect of a serial bomber attacking Austin also summons memories of another infamous domestic terrorist, Theodore Kaczynski, and his 17-year bombing campaign. The Unabomber—so named after the University and Airline Bomber Task Force (UNABOM) assembled by the FBI in 1979 to capture him—evaded authorities for nearly two decades, killing 3 people and injuring 23 others, including passengers on an airline mid-flight. His ideological motives were more clearly spelled out, thanks to a 35,000-word manifesto that both the New York Times and the Washington Post published in 1995.
The semantics here matter, for prosecution reasons and for political purposes, but also to accurately categorize the nature of the attacks. Letter bombs were more frequent (although not often successful) in Israel during the 1950s and ‘60s, but those targeted specific individuals, assassination style.
“The minute you call it terrorism, it’s politicized,” Pedahzur says. “The Unabomber is an example. He had his own political agenda, but it was bizarre, and he was the only individual carrying it out. He terrorized the whole nation for a long time.”
In Austin, the inevitable comparison may be Charles Whitman, who gave rise to the modern American mass shooting in 1966 when he climbed the University of Texas Tower and opened fire from the observation deck, killing 17 people and injuring 31 more in 96 horrifying minutes. The string of bomb attacks in Austin may be just as indiscriminate; without a declared motive to go by, the only measure is the effect on the population.
More than 500 federal agents worked in Austin to apprehend the person or persons behind the bombing campaign, which has killed two people already. The victims of the first three attacks were people of color, stoking fears that the attacks are connected by race—and also concern on social media that this fact might explain the president’s somewhat muted response.
“Given the hallmarks of the operation, and hopefully, with all the [law enforcement] resources, it’s going to be unveiled quite soon what’s behind it,” Pedahzur says. “The impact is clearly profound.”