Updated at 5:23 p.m. ET on January 6, 2022
The security-camera footage is grainy and gray with no sound, like an old silent film. Night has fallen in Washington, and a person wearing a light-colored hoodie, a face mask, and Nike Air Max Speed Turf sneakers strides down the sidewalk along South Capitol Street carrying a backpack. The person stops and stands idly in front of a house while someone passes, walking their dog on a leash. The person continues on, sitting for a while on a snowy bench near the Democratic National Committee building, close to the spot where, the following afternoon, authorities will discover a bomb made out of eight-inch galvanized steel pipe, an egg timer, and homemade black gunpowder. The person in the hoodie leaves the bench and proceeds down an alley lined with garbage cans, behind the Capitol Hill Club and the Republican National Committee building. Here, police will find another fully functioning pipe bomb.
Luckily, neither bomb detonated before being discovered. They could have caused a tragedy, and a political crisis: Today, Politico reported that then–Vice President–elect Kamala Harris was in the DNC while the bomb was outside. But after one year, the investigation into who planted the lethal explosives outside the headquarters of America’s two major political parties seems to have made little headway. The FBI has named no suspects in the case. The congressional investigation, and most public attention, has focused mainly on the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol Building. One of the strangest and most potentially catastrophic events of January 6, 2021, remains a mystery.
Listen to an interview with William J. Walker, the sergeant-at-arms for the U.S. House of Representatives, on The Experiment.
“People were asking me if I was alive,” Johannes Fischer, a former data engineer at the DNC, told me. The office was mostly empty at the time the bombs were found, but Fischer was working from his apartment just three blocks away. Family members and colleagues texted him message after message: Are you in the building? What’s happening? Is it safe? Fischer had been used to waving off concerns about such things; the DNC and the RNC often receive threats, and protesters stage rowdy demonstrations all the time in Washington. But on January 6, he had to be straight with his parents: “The coverage was right; it was accurate; it was not overblown,” Fischer told them. “It was something that potentially threatened my life.” His father suggested that he leave town and make the 10-hour drive home to Nashville.
“It’s hard to describe the level of insanity that was,” one former RNC official, whom I granted anonymity to speak candidly about his former job, told me. He wasn’t in the building that day. Most senior staffers were on Amelia Island in Florida for the RNC’s quarterly retreat. But bloody images raced through his mind as news updates rolled in: one pipe bomb found, then another, then stories about a truck full of guns and Molotov cocktails parked near the RNC. “I’m picturing people running out of the front door [of the RNC building] being shot at from someone’s car. Some sort of fire and smoke wherever the bomb detonated. People running scared.”
Investigators for the FBI have scoured hundreds of hours of video and interviewed more than 900 people so far in the pipe-bomb case. They’re reportedly studying the way the person walks in the camera footage, hoping to find a suspect match through gait analysis. But they’ve made little progress, and they’re asking members of the public for help. “We’re still nose to the grindstone here and trying to find this individual, trying to bring the person to justice,” Steven D’Antuono, the assistant director of the FBI’s D.C. field office, told the Associated Press this week. “But there is hopefully maybe somebody still out there that knows the person or sees the video again.”
In many cases involving homemade bombs, investigators can identify an attacker by tracing where the bomb’s pieces were purchased or acquired. But sometimes there aren’t many clues. “When I look at the news reports of this pipe bomber, [authorities] are focused on the gait of the individual. That tells me that they don’t have a lot of info on the bomb itself and how it was constructed,” says Lis Wiehl, a former prosecutor and the author of Hunting the Unabomber: The FBI, Ted Kaczynski, and the Capture of America’s Most Notorious Domestic Terrorist. A year might sound like a long time for a manhunt. But when “the bomb itself doesn’t give them the clues they need, a year is not that much,” Wiehl told me.
Domestic terrorists have eluded American authorities before. In the weeks after September 11, 2001, a string of attacks involving anthrax killed five Americans. The FBI struggled for years to find the perpetrator. It took even longer—17 years—to track down the Unabomber in his remote cabin in Montana. The cases are different in an obvious way: The Capitol Hill pipe bombs didn’t actually hurt anyone, while Kaczynski’s explosives killed three people and injured two dozen more over two decades. Kaczynski was so hard to find, in part, because his bombs were made from scrap materials and were difficult to trace. But the Unabomber wasn’t successful at first either. “His bombs weren’t all that good. But he perfected his work, and they started going off and killing people,” Wiehl said. Because the Capitol Hill bomber wasn’t successful, they received much less attention than either the Unabomber or the anthrax attacker. But Wiehl wouldn’t be surprised if the pipe bomber tries again. “Usually in cases like this, they’re trying to send a message through killing people,” she said. “Because it wasn’t successful and they weren’t apprehended, you can bet they’re thinking about doing it again—and doing it better.”
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