Until 2020, the phrase “Christmas bombing” was relegated to the history of the Vietnam War. However, yesterday’s attack in Nashville that left three people injured and may have been related to the death of one person ended that streak. Ever since 2001, I’ve wondered if we would experience a Christmas terror attack, but it took 2020 to pull it off.
Thankfully, there were few injuries from the attack because the perpetrators broadcast a warning on a loudspeaker to clear the area. Here’s was we know so far.
At about 5:30 am on Christmas morning, police were called out to investigate gunshots in the area. When they got there, there was no evidence of a shooting, but they found the white motorhome pictured in the tweet above parked at 166 2nd Avenue North, which houses an AT&T transmission facility. The camper had apparently been sighted in the area as early as 1 am.
CNN reports that residents of the area said that a voice on a loudspeaker said, “This vehicle will explode in 15 minutes” and then counted down the minutes until the detonation. Six police officers who had responded to the call knocked on doors and urged residents to evacuate. A report by the Tennessean says that the message began with, “Evacuate now. There is a bomb. A bomb is in this vehicle and will explode."
At about 6:30, the message changed to “If you can hear this message, evacuate now,” and the RV exploded, injuring three people, including an officer who had hearing loss.
A surveillance camera recorded the blast:
Another video, taken after the explosion, shows the devastation in the street, which looks like a scene from a war movie:
Later in the day, police reported finding human remains near the blast site. Few details are available about what was originally described as “tissue” and it is not known whether the remains were found in the camper or nearby. It is also not known if the person was killed by the blast or was already dead.
The blast heavily damaged AT&T coverage in Nashville. WKRN reported that the outage affected 911 systems, hospitals, ATMs, and credit card readers in addition to phones. That outage is reportedly ongoing.
So far, police have not announced any suspects in the case, but more than $300,000 in reward money has been announced.
And now for the speculation.
Whenever there is a terrorist attack in the United States, there are always two immediate suspects. The first reaction is to think that Islamic radicals were responsible. The second is to blame the radical wing of the party that you don’t like. At various times, all three answers have been right.
Car bombs are often associated with Islamic radicals and there have been a number of Islamic terror attacks in the US in recent years. Although there have been Islamic car and truck bomb attacks in the US, notably the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the attempted car bombing in Times Square in 2010, more recent Islamic attacks have been on a smaller scale and to use readily available weapons, such as the lone gunman who attacked the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi last May or the truck attack that killed eight in New York in 2017.
But Islamic terrorists don’t typically warn their victims to evacuate. They want to inflict as high a death toll as possible. So, why would the Nashville bomber(s) warn people near the blast site?
There are several possibilities. There is precedent for warnings about bombs. In Irish “Troubles,” the IRA often gave warnings before bomb attacks both to limit the loss of innocent life and to target British soldiers and police with secondary bombs.
One is that killing people was never the intent. The target could have been the AT&T building where the RV was parked. There are several reasons that this could be the motive. The bomber may have had a grudge against AT&T or the goal could have been to disrupt communications as part of some larger operation.
There have been suggestions that the bombing was a suicide, perhaps by a former AT&T employee. This theory accounts for the location of the bombing and the human remains but is so far unproven.
The bombing could also have been a warning. It could have been intended as a demonstration of what the bomber was capable of doing. Perhaps the threat is that a similar vehicle will pull up outside of a shopping mall, a hospital, a school, a military base, a media headquarters, or a government building one day soon if demands are not met.
If that is the case, what would be the demand? There are limitless possibilities ranging from money or the release of prisoners to political motives.
2020 provides a long list of possible motives for political violence. The Black Lives Matter protests often turned violent, but that movement has quieted down since the summer. BLM was also about mob violence rather than organized political violence. The most recent high-profile left-wing terror attack was in 2019 when a self-proclaimed Antifa activist attacked an ICE facility in Washington State.
There have been leftist bombings in the US, but right-wing extremism has overtaken left-wing violence since the 1990s. Who says so? The FBI. The Economist also has a useful graphic that compares different ideologies behind terrorist attacks in the US.
2020 has also been a hotbed of right-wing extremism. Among the right-wing plots revealed this year were an attempt to blow up a hospital in Missouri, “boogaloo” cop-killings, and a plot to kidnap and try Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for treason. Back in April, a QAnon adherent was arrested in New York carrying 18 knives and trying to board the hospital ship USNS Comfort.
Aside from the normal anti-government motives that led Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City with another truck bomb back in 1995, 2020 has been a powder keg of irresponsible rhetoric based on claims that the pandemic was a hoax intended to institute tyranny and that the election was stolen through widespread fraud. There are also claims that prominent politicians and celebrities are part of a child-sex cult. None of these claims are true, but many people think they are.
And these claims can also inspire violence. In the past few weeks, we’ve had well-known and high-profile figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Allen West broach the idea of secession. Michael Flynn, recently pardoned by the president, is one of several Republicans who have advocated martial law.
We cannot discard the possibility that the Nashville bomb was related to the current political situation in which numerous politicians have been telling Americans for months that their country is being stolen from them and that they are about to be subjected to a socialist or fascist tyranny, depending on who is doing the talking. That is the kind of talk that could inspire a terrorist attack from either side, but how political motives would inspire an attack on the AT&T building is uncertain, assuming that the AT&T was the target.
It is also unknown whether the attack was a one-off or the precursor to a wider bombing campaign. It typically takes bombers a long time to gather materials and build even one truck bomb, but, if the attack was carried out by a group, more people might be able to assemble bombs more quickly. The flip side is that more people would make the conspiracy more vulnerable to law enforcement investigations.
I won’t speculate further on which theory is correct. We just don’t have enough information at this point, but one additional piece to the puzzle broke only a few minutes ago. CBS News reports that authorities have identified a person of interest in the bombing. If this person is still alive, it would seem that the suicide theory is unlikely.
Beyond that, we’ll have to wait for more details.