As the Austin Bombing Spree Ends, Lessons Emerge for Spotting the Next Killer

7 MINS READMar 22, 2018 | 15:38 GMT
  • Every attack provides lessons that can be used to prevent the next one.
  • It appears that this bomber taught himself how to build bombs.
  • Had neighbors spoken up when they saw, smelled or heard suspicious activity, the bomber might have been stopped before he even began killing.

Editor's Note: This report was produced and originally published March 20 by Threat Lens, Stratfor's unique protective intelligence product. Designed with corporate security leaders in mind, Threat Lens enables industry professionals to anticipate, identify, measure and mitigate emerging threats to people and assets around the world.

After evading police for 19 days, killing two people and injuring five others, the suspect behind the 2018 Austin bombings took his life with one of his own bombs early March 21. In the process, he injured one more person — a SWAT officer who was approaching bomber Mark Anthony Conditt's vehicle along Interstate Highway 35 north of Austin. Police had identified Conditt as the primary suspect behind the bombings just hours before his death following a flurry of activity the previous 48 hours. Changes in tactics, an increased operational tempo, the recovery of an undetonated device and even a false alarm at a local Goodwill store had set the city on edge.

By approximately 9 p.m. on March 20, authorities had narrowed down the search by identifying Conditt's patterns of purchasing the materials used in the bombs (including specialty batteries ordered from Asia); a physical description and vehicle type from surveillance cameras at a FedEx location; and Conditt's cellphone number. Having obtained a warrant, police searched for Conditt and found him shortly after he turned on his phone, alerting police to his location at a hotel along I-35. Police followed him as he left the hotel parking lot, pursuing him into a ditch, where he activated a bomb and killed himself.

Within the media, the story now has evolved into determining Conditt's motive, with heavy speculation based on bits and pieces of dated material. While motive and ideology may be important for determining whether others may have been involved in the bombing spree who remain on the loose, so far all indications suggest he was working by himself. His failure to exploit the attention generated by the attacks to air any particular grievances suggests that seeking some sort of change in policy (a crucial element in domestic terrorism) was not foremost in his motivation. A 25-minute audio recording recovered by police reveals Conditt's descriptions of the devices he was making along with struggles in his life, but makes no mention of political motivations. Indeed, Conditt's choice of targets may have been as arbitrary as creating geographic symmetry: a map of his attacks and intended attacks appears to create two parallel lines on either side of Austin. While it is still early, and police may unearth some sort of hidden manifesto or garner some sort of breakthrough by talking to those who knew Conditt, it is also possible that, like Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, we may never get a clear picture of what motivated Conditt.

Understanding Conditt's motive will not necessarily help us stop the next serial bomber or other type of attacker — especially assuming that Conditt's motivation was an outlier and he was not affiliated with an existing violent group or ideology. Understanding how he was able to carry out the attacks for so long without being detected, however, will provide some lessons useful in identifying and stopping the next bomber. And fortunately, in this area we have more to work with.

The How

How was Conditt able to build such devices? Based on preliminary records, it does not appear he had received any formal training in explosives, as earlier thought. He has no military record and does not appear to have worked for any police force or demolition company. The only work experience we are aware he had was as a purchasing agent at a precision machine company in north Austin. That job certainly did not involve working with explosive material, and in any case, he underperformed at it, causing his termination in August 2017 (a potential trigger that contributed to his turn to violence).

Absent formal training, it appears that Conditt taught himself how to build bombs. Indeed, after Conditt was identified as the suspect, neighbors reported having heard loud bangs coming from his house late at night in recent weeks. One neighbor commented to local news that in retrospect, such loud noises were particularly unusual in such a quiet neighborhood. Neighbors even shared and confirmed the strange noises over social media, though there is no indication that anyone ever alerted authorities. Conditt's roommates, who were questioned by police, also do not appear to have reported suspicious noises coming from their own house. While we cannot confirm that these loud noises were connected to Conditt, it would make sense that he would have practiced assembling and detonating bombs, experimenting with the different designs that he deployed during his bombing spree.

Not reporting these loud, suspicious noises appears to have been a missed opportunity to identify the bombmaker. But Conditt's neighbors are not alone in missing an opportunity to thwart an attacker. In March 2016, the landlord of the men who went on to attack Brussels Airport and the Belgian capital's metro system reflected that he had noticed a "noxious odor" coming from their unit but did not follow up on it. In May 2017, the landlord of Salman Abedi, the Manchester concert bomber, remembered that he had noticed strange items and a strong chemical smell coming from his flat. He, too, decided not to follow up on his suspicions or alert authorities.

The mantra "If you see something, say something" should thus not be taken too literally: Smelling, hearing or even feeling like something suspicious is going on are equally valid reasons to speak up. In the 2016 and 2017 cases, the bombmakers were working with TATP, a particularly nasty and volatile homemade explosive mixture that leaves telltale stains and odors behind. We do not yet know what type of explosive material Conditt was using, but given his lack of formal explosives training and audio obtained from a home surveillance camera near the location of the March 18 attack, we believe that Conditt was likely working with a low-order explosive material such as black powder or smokeless powder. This material is readily available at most sporting good stores or can even be salvaged from fireworks. It is a common explosive material among bomb hobbyists and domestic U.S. bombmakers with violent intent, mostly because it is so easy to obtain and fairly easy to work with.

This certainly does not mean that anyone in possession of black powder is an aspiring killer. But the more those in close proximity to bombmakers, like neighbors and landlords, are aware of the materials that can be used to build bombs, the more likely they are to recognize suspicious activity that could portend a more serious threat.

Obviously, bombs are not the only deadly weapon out there. Mark Anthony Conditt chose explosives, but Nikolas Cruz chose firearms and Bastille Day attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel chose the delivery truck. Focusing on the type of weapon used is not necessarily enough to determine if someone poses a threat. More subtle cues outlined in the Terrorist Radicalization Assessment Protocol (TRAP) can indicate that a person is undergoing a psychological change that could lead to violence. Of the 18 indicators TRAP lays out, Conditt appears to have fit the description of at least five of them:

  • Failure to affiliate (Conditt was commonly referred to as a "loner").
  • Thwarting of occupational goals (Conditt was fired in August 2017).
  • Pathway warning behavior (Suspicious noises apparently came from Conditt's home).
  • Fixation (Conditt reportedly withdrew even further leading up to his attacks).
  • Energy burst (The attacks were carried out at a frenzied pace from March 18-20).

Obviously, not all of this behavior was known to any single person until the authorities put the pieces together late March 20. This only emphasizes the importance of reporting suspicious activity to the proper authorities, no matter how trivial it may seem, since they have the ability to synthesize that information with other details to paint a fuller picture.

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