Sometimes an explosion is just an explosion

The Christmas Day bombing in Nashville has led to many, many questions and very few answers on what happened and why.

We may live in an era of instant news but that does not mean we know everything instantly.

Isn’t the 24-hour news cycle amazing? In the olden days we would have to wait for accounts on far flung events forever, only becoming better informed when the ‘slow boat from China’ had docked.

Now? We get things right away. It does not matter if something important happens in a major city or in the middle of nowhere. We are inundated with breaking news, eye witness accounts as well as, and this is a big problem, what I call ‘instant analysis’. The surety with which some self-styled experts speak about incidents despite the huge lack of anything definitive worries me.

This kind of thing is happening as I type. Early on Christmas morning (i.e. yesterday, this being Boxing Day) an RV exploded in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, injuring three people. The vehicle had been parked outside an AT&T transmission building, resulting in a temporary interruption in telecommunications services.

Here is where it gets interesting. Before the blast a recorded voice had been announcing that a bomb would go off in 15 minutes. Then 14. Then 13. Then – BOOM! A body has been located in the area and police are speculating that it may belong to the person who set the device. There is just so much unknown at this point.

That of course has not stopped the ‘instant analysts’ from pronouncing all kinds of stuff.

I looked at the hashtag #nashvilleexplosion on Twitter this morning (Dec 26) and found a lot of views, including this tweet:

  • One of two possible two possible groups did this. The question is, which one?

Alas, the poster did not share with us which these two groups were although I did note that he described himself as a ‘US patriot and Trump is my President’, whatever that means. So, can he enlighten us?

Probably not.

When events of this nature occur and there is no obvious culprit – say a claim of responsibility, an insignia, or prior intelligence – many seem unable to not weigh in with their ‘theories’. Based on what, I have no idea.

If it was indeed terrorism, why issue a 15-minute warning? Don’t terrorists want to kill? Sure, both the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Basque terrorists ETA would give such heads-up with some frequency but I am pretty sure there are no IRA or ETA cells in Nashville!

More importantly, if 32 years in security intelligence taught me anything it was that it is usually a good idea to keep one’s powder dry until more data is available. When you come out and state that a bombing was most definitely carried out by ____ and it turns out it was not, you look stupid. Really stupid.

I should know as it happened to me in 2011 when I miscalled the slaughter of more than 70 Norwegians by a white nationalist named Anders Breivik (I have freely admitted my error on many occasions). I never felt so ridiculous than I did on that day.

I do hope we learn more about this explosion in the days to come.

Maybe there was some prior information that local law enforcement or the FBI had. Maybe there will be a manifesto or a statement or a video. Maybe there will indeed be a body in the RV which can be identified and the pieces of the puzzle will start to form a picture of who was behind this.

What will that picture look like? I have absolutely no idea. Possibilities run at the very least from an actual ideologically-motivated attack to a spectacular suicide and everything in between. As for the location, is the ATT significant? Who knows? There was also a Hooters bar nearby. Is that important?

To sum up, one of the 4,300 people or so who follow me on Twitter wrote to me in the wake of my appeal for patience that “This kind of attitude is never going to get you a recurring gig on a 24 hr. news channel.”

Oh well. I have no desire for that ‘recurring gig’ anyway. After all, I’d rather be accurate than first.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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