Who's behind the Boston Marathon bombings? 4 theories

More than half a day after the explosions in Boston, police still have few answers. That hasn't quieted the speculation

Massachusetts State Police guard an area near Kenmore Square after two bombs exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15.
(Image credit: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)

Law enforcement officials don't have any official suspects in Monday's twin bombings at the finish line of the Boston marathon. And President Obama specifically urged people not to speculate on who's behind the attack, which killed at least three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounded more than 100 others, including several amputations.

"We still don't know who did this or why," Obama said Monday night. "People should not jump to conclusions before we have all the facts. But make no mistake. We will get to the bottom of this. We will find out who did this. We will find out why they did this. Any individual or responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice."

Of course, plenty of people are speeding by the president's advice and jumping to conclusions, or at least jumping to theories. "We all wonder first who did this," says Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast. And, Tomasky says, a little careful speculation isn't such a bad thing. Here are four groups that are the focus of early (and — let us be clear — sometimes baseless) finger-pointing in the Boston attack:

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1. Islamist jihadists

This theory was inevitable in the worst attack on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and it gained some initial credence from a New York Post report that a 20-year-old Saudi national had been picked up as a "person of interest." Police quickly threw cold water on that report, but then Boston TV station WABC reported that police are "searching for a darker skinned or black male with a black backpack and black sweatshirt, possibly foreign national from the accent of the individual."

Another anonymous law enforcement official "notes that the manner of the attack suggests it may have been Al Qaeda inspired — if not Al Qaeda directed," says Christopher Dickey at The Daily Beast. That's because the construction of the bombs — gunpowder with ball-bearings and other shrapnel to maximize the damage — is similar to a bomb recipe shared by Al Qaeda "on its internet manuals for terrorist attacks."

Of course, not everyone is convinced. "Horrific as this obviously was, it doesn't seem big enough" for an attack by Arab terrorists, says The Daily Beast's Tomasky. "Everything we know about their m.o. — the 1993 WTC bombing, the 2000 LAX plot, and 9-11 — suggests that they aim bigger."

2. Right-wing militia types

This theory, too, was inevitable. And most proponents point to the date — Patriots' Day — as a clue. Residents of Massachusetts and Maine celebrate Patriots' Day by taking the day off of work and re-enacting the first battles of the American Revolution, says Sommer Mathis at The Atlantic Cities. "But in recent years, Second Amendment activists and anti-government modern-day militia members have tried to co-opt the holiday, which also roughly marks the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing."

It's also "wise in these cases to remember that the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 were carried out by Americans who espoused extreme right-wing causes," says The Daily Beast's Dickey.

There's also the fact that the Boston Marathon fell on tax day this year, and the last mile of the race "was dedicated to Newtown victims," says Tomasky.

But man you would have to be a really 100 percent out-there sicko to think that this was how you wanted to make a political statement about gun rights. I think there are dangerous extremists among that group, but I don't think even they would do or approve of doing something like this. [Daily Beast]

3. The government

"False flag" attack proponents wasted no time blaming the government for staging the Boston explosions to achieve their own ends, says Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon. First out of the gate was Alex Jones, who tweeted: "Our hearts go out to those that are hurt or killed #Boston marathon – but this thing stinks to high heaven #falseflag."

Then "Dan Bidondi, a 'reporter/analyist' (sic) for Alex Jones's InfoWars, managed to ask Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick the very first question in a nationally televised press conference," notes Slate's David Weigel:

Why were the loud speakers telling people in the audience to be calm moments before the bombs went off? Is this another false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security while sticking their hands down our pants on the streets? [Via Slate]

"Patrick, looking on with a mixture of rage and pity, said 'no,' surely aware that he couldn't halt this guy's incipient Internet fame," says Weigel. But the inevitable Boston marathon "truthers" will have a hard time with this conspiracy theory. There were too many cameras and witnesses to "concoct a really compelling conspiracy theory," and the real-time fact-checking on Twitter has decimated the bad information that conspiracies need to thrive. For example, those "loud speakers" urging calm never happened.

4. A criminally insane lone wolf

There's also the possibility that this attack was perpetrated by some "local nutcase," says Tomasky at The Daily Beast. "I guess I am right now leaning in that least conspiratorial direction." Unfortunately, in our "open and free society," people can cause massive destruction with a few well-placed bombs. There's a decent chance the Boston marathon attackers were "motivated by simple revenge of some kind, or by nothing but the disease in someone's brain."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.