1 Year After Deadly Capitol Attack, Pipe Bomb Suspect Remains A Mystery

The first pipe bomb was found on Jan. 6 by luck. The two devices served to divert police resources away from the ensuing Capitol violence.
A surveillance photo released by the FBI shows a person in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, 2021.
A surveillance photo released by the FBI shows a person in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, 2021.
Handout . via Reuters

Join HuffPost and BuzzFeed News for a Twitter Spaces conversation about the legal fallout of the Capitol riot on Jan. 5 at 1 p.m. ET. Sign up to be notified when the Space begins here.

In the year since a deadly riot threatened to overturn democracy, hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump have been arrested and charged with crimes related to the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. A House committee is currently probing how the violence was organized, and Trump himself is feeling the intense pressure of its inquiries. But one dark mystery lingers: Who planted two potentially lethal pipe bombs in key locations around Washington, D.C., the night before the attack?

It’s a question the FBI has been asking for the past year, but so far ― at least publicly ― has not found the answer to.

A 20-Minute Timer

The first pipe bomb was found by sheer luck. It was the afternoon of Jan. 6, just hours before thousands of Trump supporters would swarm the Capitol and hundreds more would breach its doors. Karlin Younger, a D.C. resident, was holding a wine-stained sweater outside of her laundry room when she noticed a metal object by the trash can outside the Republican National Headquarters.

“You’re just staring at it, and you’re like, ‘Okay, it’s definitely metal,’” Younger told Insider in October. “But there’s like wires attached to it, and there’s a timer attached to it. What am I looking at? It’s not immediately obvious because you’re just really, really not expecting anything.”

One of the pipe bombs discovered near Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021.
One of the pipe bombs discovered near Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021.
FBI

The device was a pipe bomb, made from galvanized steel pipe with black explosive powder inside. On the front of the pipe, a kitchen timer with a paper clip glued on the handle was attached to it like some sort of insidious MacGyver invention. The timer was set to 20 minutes, Younger recalled.

Younger quickly alerted a security guard.

“He walks over, he leans over and just goes, ‘Holy shit, that’s a bomb.’ And I was like, ‘I knew it, I knew it, I knew this didn’t look right,’” she told Insider.

Not long after her discovery, police found another device: a pipe bomb outside of the Democratic National Convention headquarters.

Bomb technicians blasted both bombs with water cannons, disabling the devices around the same time a violent pro-Trump mob descended on the Capitol.

The Unknown Suspect

Security camera footage captured the clearest images of the suspect, who placed the bombs in the early evening hours of Jan. 5. Images released by the FBI show the individual wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, gloves, a mask and a pair of black and light gray Nike Air Max Speed Turf shoes with a yellow logo. The suspect was also carrying a backpack which was used to transport the pipe bombs.

The FBI is still trying to identify the individual who left two pipe bombs in the Capitol Hill area the night before the Capitol attack.
The FBI is still trying to identify the individual who left two pipe bombs in the Capitol Hill area the night before the Capitol attack.
FBI

The FBI, which said it does not believe the individual is from the D.C. area, has sifted through more than 23,000 video files and conducted more than 800 interviews. The agency’s last update on the suspect was in September, when it released a virtual map showing the route the suspect took along with more security camera video of the individual.

Barry Black, a retired FBI special agent and master bomb technician who helped investigate the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, told HuffPost it doesn’t take a sophisticated bomb maker to slap together the components for a pipe bomb.

“Pipe bombs are the most common type of IED [Improvised Explosive Device] encountered in the U.S.,” Black, who worked in the FBI for 31 years, said. “They’re deadly, they’re lethal, but the components are relatively easy to acquire.”

There doesn’t need to be “any kind of high-speed integrated circuitry” to create a potentially deadly explosive, Black said.

“Just because it’s crude doesn’t mean it can’t be effective,” he added.

The Diversion ‘Worked’

While a direct motive remains unclear, what is known is that on Jan. 6 police resources were diverted to responding to the pipe bombs and away from the Capitol attack as it was unfolding.

U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testified before Congress earlier this year to say as much.

“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,” Sund told lawmakers. “I think there was significant coordination with this attack.”

Pro-Trump protesters and police clash on top of the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.
Pro-Trump protesters and police clash on top of the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.
Pacific Press via Getty Images

During a House Oversight Committee hearing in May, D.C. Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton said that when the pipe bombs were discovered the morning of Jan. 6, three teams left to investigate the threat, leaving just one team in charge of protecting the Capitol.

“If those pipe bombs were intended to be a diversion, it worked,” Bolton testified.

More than 140 officers were injured during the Capitol attack, where five people died. Four other officers who responded to the attack later died by suicide.

‘Pulling Threads From A Sweater’

Black, the former FBI special agent and master bomb technician who is now an adjunct teacher at the University of Oklahoma’s Forensic Science Institute, stressed patience in finding a suspect.

“There’s a thing called the ‘CSI effect,’ where everybody is used to watching the show for an hour and it goes from the crime, to resolution to conviction in 60 minutes,” Black told HuffPost. “And it just doesn’t work that way in real life.”

Instead, investigators must look at forensic evidence like the pipe bomb devices themselves, along with camera footage, witness interviews and tips.

“You can imagine the volume of information that’s collected in a case like this, and it takes agents time to go through it all and connect the dots and wait for that one, perhaps small, piece of information to tie all together,” Black said. “I think of it as pulling threads from a sweater: Eventually you get the one that can unravel everything, but it just takes time.”

Black said he believes it’s just a matter of when, not if, a suspect is caught.

“A lot of things go into an investigation like this, but finding the person responsible is key, and I’m confident over time that will happen,” he said.

The FBI is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the identification of the pipe bomb suspect. They are asking people to contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or submit tips online at tips.fbi.gov. Tips can be submitted anonymously.

Popular in the Community