FBI Counterterrorism Expert Backs PanAm Post’s Coverage of Bogota Mall Bombing
I am writing in reply to a column published by the PanAm Post on June 19, 2017, regarding the terrorist bombing at the Andino Mall in Bogota, Colombia. The reasonable questions the article raised regarding the government’s actions following the attack elicited several critical responses and personal attacks on the PanAm Post’s and the editor’s credibility. Having personal experience in terrorist investigations, including bombings in the United States, Iraq and other countries, I support the PanAm Post’s analysis and join them in questioning the nature of the government’s investigation and the credibility of its official statements.
I was perplexed at the paucity of information provided to the public to aid the government in identifying the perpetrators and preventing another attack. The short hours immediately following an attack are the most crucial to finding those involved who are still at large and likely planning their escape or the next attack. Absent actionable leads from the investigation, the government can turn to the plethora of surveillance cameras, mobile phones and eyewitness identification to provide images of individuals observed in the vicinity of the device or otherwise engaged in suspicious behavior. These images, broadcast throughout the nation, have proved successful in identifying and locating terrorists, such as those involved in the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013, as well as other cases around the globe. It is odd to consider not a single image from the mall’s extensive surveillance camera system was provided to aid in the identification of the bombers, witnesses or other persons of interest. Even more odd was the release and subsequent withdrawal of a composite sketch based on supposed multiple eyewitness testimony.
The Santos government’s public comments and conclusions appear devoid of reasonable deductions or credible conclusions at the time of publication. The Andino Mall is a logical target for terrorists given its upscale businesses and clientele. However, the women’s bathroom is not a logical place to secrete a bomb, as its construction and location would preclude the mass casualties, physical destruction and media attention that is the hallmark of terrorist bombings. The women’s bathroom is an excellent place to assemble or arm a device. The individual stalls provide concealment from onlookers and an opportunity to prepare the device without interruption. The government’s conclusion shortly after the bombing that the women’s bathroom was indeed the target of the blast appears more conjecture than logical conclusion based on investigation. The danger of this early misdiagnosis is that it may cause some to dismiss the possibility that one or more of the women who died in the attack may have actually been involved in perpetrating the attack.
In considering the backgrounds of those involved in a terrorist bombing by any group— including the victims— investigators focus on forensic analysis of the position of the body, known terrorists associates, and suspicious travel, among other factors. By all accounts, Julie Huynh died instantly from the blast and sustained injuries consistent with being in close proximity of the device when it exploded. Apparently, she was in the very stall in which the device detonated. The other two victims were in the bathroom and later died from their injuries.
The type of device used in the attack was identified by the government as an ammonal bomb. Ammonal is an explosive material made up of ammonium nitrate, TNT, and aluminum powder. This is a relatively inexpensive alternative to commercial or military explosives. However, the mixture requires close attention to proportions and can be unstable if not properly prepared, resulting in a spontaneous detonation. Given the location of the device when it detonated and Huynh’s proximity, it is well within the realm of possibility that she either purposefully initiated the device or inadvertently detonated it while preparing or arming the bomb.
Huynh’s Facebook page showed recent travel to Cuba, a known sponsor of the FARC. She also worked at an NGO that engaged with former FARC combatants. We can logically conclude she was exposed to the FARC’s political ideology and propaganda during her travels. Again, it is within the realm of possibility that she may have held more violent political views and was involved in the bombing as more than a victim.
The government’s early public declaration that no explosive residue was found on any of the victims following the blast is incongruous with the nature of explosive materials. Bombs kill by means of a blast wave of overpressure, shrapnel from the device or its surroundings, and the thermal effects of the bomb. Forensic examination of the blast scene by qualified Bomb Technicians will reveal evidence of all three lethal elements of the bomb. Evidence of the blast wave, shrapnel and thermal effects are often physically evident on the battered bodies of the victims. The explosive material used in the device also leaves discernible residue on the clothing, skin and hair of the victims. It defies reasonableness and the laws of physics to state that three women in close proximity to a bomb, including one occupying the very stall in which the bomb detonated, would have no residue of the explosive material on their person.
Huynh’s role in this violent attack, either as a perpetrator or a victim, is the subject of considerable online debate and vitriolic comments directed at the PanAm Post and its supporters. I have found no indication that the PanAm Post’s team or any of its supporters (including myself) have concluded Huynh is guilty of perpetrating the attack. Indeed, her role in the attack can only be determined through professional investigation and forensic examination. The government’s public statements regarding the bombing are premature and clearly lack the factual basis of an objective investigation. This raises reasonable questions regarding the veracity of the government’s reporting and complicity in tailoring evidence and public statements to meet a predetermined conclusion.
In the end, some leads will result in dead ends and others will prove fruitful. But no logical investigative lead can be ignored. Huynh may be an innocent victim, as may be the other two women who died in the attack. But absent a professional and objective investigation, the truth will never be known. This denies the victims and their families justice and encourages similar atrocities in the future. The PanAm Post‘s analysis and questions, therefore, were appropriate and reasonable.
Gregory A. Fowler is a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent who was in charge of the FBI’s Portland Division. He was also the special agent in charge (SAC) for counterterrorism in the FBI’s New York Division. Previously he was in charge of the FBI’s Chicago Division, where he led the operations of the division’s counterterrorism program, which includes the Joint Terrorism Task Force. His duties also involved oversight responsibility for the intelligence, cyber, and bomb technician programs. He was temporarily assigned to Baghdad, Iraq, where he served as the deputy on-scene commander in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He spent two years as Head of the FBI Oregon office before retiring in 2013.
Editor’s Note: Mr. Fowler was not the anonymous source quoted by the PanAm Post in its June 19 article about the terrorist attack in Bogota’s Centro Andino.