More than three months after the U.S. Capitol riot, a bomb-maker remains on the loose.
A majority of the public's attention has been focused on the hundreds of people who have been charged for their role on Jan. 6. But the night before, someone committed a different crime: The person placed two explosive devices near the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and that person is still at large.
The FBI released a substantial amount of information in an attempt to drum up leads from the public, and the reward for information about the suspect is now $100,000.
Here's what is known: The suspect was wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, a COVID-19 mask and expensive sneakers — Nike Air Max Speed Turf with a distinctive yellow logo. Sometime between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m., the suspect placed one pipe bomb on a park bench near the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and another behind the Republican National Committee headquarters.
Doug Kouns spent 22 years in the FBI and focused on counterterrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks, and he said that the suspect made a concerted effort to hide their identity. "You can see the person's wearing gloves. They seem to be familiar with the area. They probably know there's cameras here and there and have really just covered their tracks," Kouns said.
The explosive devices the suspect made were rather generic: simple bombs made from 1-by-8-inch galvanized steel pipes — the kind plumbers use — with plastic kitchen timers mounted on top, the ones you spin around to set. The FBI said the explosive inside was homemade black powder, which can be a mix of just about anything that will ignite; typically it includes saltpeter, sulfur and gunpowder.
"What I think would be accurate to say, given the information we have, is this is a very hazardous device that could kill people," said Barry Black, a retired FBI special agent and master bomb technician who helped investigate the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The FBI is also using gait analysis, a technique used to identify someone by the way the person walks, hoping it will lead to a suspect. Agents have released surveillance video to see if someone in the public might recognize the suspect from the way he or she moves.
Dr. Mike Nirenberg wrote a textbook on gait analysis, and he reviewed the FBI video with NPR. "Look at how close their feet are to each other. ... So that is a narrow base of gait," he said, watching the suspect. "Immediately what you notice is the arm swing of the person on that left arm. ... There isn't a lot of rotation in the upper half of their body, their torso."
The FBI is asking people with possible leads to contact it if they know of anyone who acted suspiciously in the time leading up to Jan. 5, purchased multiple kitchen timers without a good explanation or showed an unusual interest in explosives.
While the suspect's motive is unknown, former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testified before Congress that he believes that the devices were planted as a possible diversion ahead of the events the following day. "We were dealing with two pipe bombs that were specifically set right off the edge of our perimeter to, what I suspect, draw resources away," he said in a congressional hearing. "I think there was a significant coordination with this attack."
Despite all the resources that federal law enforcement has at its disposal, it has not yet been able to make an arrest in this case. "I would say it just takes time," Black told NPR. "You know we've had investigations, bombing investigations ... where it would be 10, 15, 20 years before someone was indicted."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Let's get reaction to the president's plan from someone who has commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Chris Kolenda led troops in combat against the Taliban and then later participated in diplomatic talks with them.
Colonel Kolenda, welcome back to the program.
CHRIS KOLENDA: It's really nice to be here. Thanks, Mary Louise.
KELLY: I know you have been saying for a while now it's time; let's bring the troops home. Do you agree with the timeline that the president laid out today?
KOLENDA: Well, I think what his decision reflects is the basic principle in which you make all decisions, which is the grapefruit principle. And that is, is the juice worth the squeeze? Is keeping American troops there in Afghanistan worth the - you know, worth the price and worth the downside risk? And his calculation was, no, it's not anymore. It may have been at one time, but it's not anymore. We've done all we could.
KELLY: I noticed David Petraeus, the former commanding general of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan - he weighed in today, very critical of this decision and specifically warning the Taliban is going to go on the offensive, ungoverned spaces are going to get bigger and terrorist organizations are going to flourish. Is he wrong?
KOLENDA: Well, I think you've got to bear in mind three things about Afghanistan. I mean, the first one is that the United States can't give the Afghan government legitimacy. The Afghan government has to earn it, and it has to earn it in the eyes of the people. And they haven't done that yet. Second is, you know, the Taliban live there, and we don't, so they're always going to be able to wait us out because they live there. And then third is geography matters. We can't wish away the geography. Afghanistan is surrounded by states that are hostile to our presence there. They also live there. And so, you know, you've got this situation where a conditions-based approach - I mean, it briefs well. People say, oh, yes, conditions-based makes sense. But you'll never get there from here. And we've shown that the last 20 years because of some of these problems.
KELLY: I don't actually hear you saying Petraeus is wrong. It's more like you're arguing there is no perfect outcome. There's no perfect ending here.
KOLENDA: I wish there was an easy ending. It would've been nice. I spent a lot of quality time in Afghanistan. I've had soldiers killed and wounded in Afghanistan. I'd love to see a - you know, an easy solution. But at the - where we were right now, with 2,500 to 3,500 troops there, it's just encouraging the worst behavior on the part of all actors - the Afghan government slow-rolling a peace process, the Taliban waiting to see if we'll actually leave and regional actors, you know, fomenting further conflict in Afghanistan through their proxies.
KELLY: So let me ask you, in the minute or so we have left, a basic question. Was it worth it? Twenty years, so much money spent, so many lives lost - was it worth it?
KOLENDA: Well, my new book, which is called "Zero-Sum Victory: What We're Getting Wrong About War," is, you know, we - talks about the chronic errors that we keep making in these conflicts. We've made them in Afghanistan. We've made them in Iraq. We've made them in Vietnam. And there needs to be some reckoning about why these interventions continue turning into quagmires. And the extent to which things are worth it, as you asked, is going to be measured, I think, by the accountability and by the reforms that we make to how we wage war and how we engage in these sort of conflicts in the future.
KELLY: That is retired U.S. Army Colonel Chris Kolenda. He's a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and founder of the Strategic Leadership Academy (ph).
Colonel Kolenda, glad to speak with you.
KOLENDA: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.