October 11, 2002: Bombing at Finnish mall

Finnish police were unable to discover a motive behind a bombing at a Helsinki mall in 2002 perpetrated by a 19-year old chemistry buff.

HELSINKI, FINLAND — We always look for motive in terrorist attacks: what if there is none?

Despite the attention we as a planet have paid to terrorism over the past two decades – yes terrorism predates 9/11 but few really cared about it before then – we are still woefully short of an agreed-upon definition.

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Some say it is any act that causes fear (or terror). This is highly problematic as many things humans do make others afraid (say mass shootings) but are not necessarily terrorist in nature.

Others say that terrorism is a serious act of violence which is driven by an underlying ‘ideology’ -political, religious or otherwise. But what constitutes an ideology? Any set of ideas? A coherent set of ideas? A coherent set of ideas with an end-goal? All very good questions.

This conundrum is before us now in the debate about what to call the small number of violent incels (‘involuntary celibates’) who kill (an infinitesimally small percentage of all incels). Terrorists? Hatemongers? Criminals? There is no consensus that I have been able to discern so far (NB I so far do not consider it terrorism but rather violent misogyny).

So if we cannot agree on what ideology even is what do we do with an obvious act of serious violence that bears every hallmark of terrorism but which ends up devoid of any ideological driver that we can detect?

Welcome to today’s featured attack

On this day in 2002 a bombing took place at a crowded shopping mall in a suburb of Helsinki in which seven people were killed and 100 injured. Finnish police arrested four people, three of whom were teenagers and ended up charging one, the 17-year old moderator of an online forum to be discussed below.

The police said they believed that Petri Gerdt, a 19-year-old chemistry student who was killed in the blast, acted alone in carrying out the bombing but added that he may have received bomb-building advice over the Internet and possibly help in designing the bomb, a homemade explosive packed with metal shards and shotgun pellets, and containing ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Mr. Gerdt, who lived with his parents and attended college not far from the Myyrmanni shopping mall, was active in a Finnish Internet discussion group that shared bomb-making techniques, known as ”Forum for Home Chemistry.” Finnish authorities concluded that while they were unable to detect a motive for the attack, they did rule out terrorism.

The motive is the big question mark, but we don’t think it has an international connection or with international terrorism.

Inspector Rabbe von Hertzen, National Bureau of Investigation

In other words, a fatal bombing a year after 9/11 that many probably assumed had to be another terrorist attack appeared to be nothing of the sort. Sometimes even it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is actually a red herring.

Sorry for the mixed animal metaphor!

Phil Gurski

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