FBI investigates bomb attempt at parade

By Jerry Markon
Thursday, January 20, 2011; A02

The FBI is investigating whether racial bias could have played a role in the apparent attempted bombing of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade route in Spokane, Wash., officials said Wednesday.

Three city employees spotted an unattended black backpack on a bench about an hour before the parade honoring the slain civil rights leader was to start on Monday. When they looked inside and saw wires, they alerted Spokane police, who defused a potentially lethal explosive device, officials said.

No one was injured in the incident, which came amid growing concern nationally over what authorities call a wave of homegrown terrorism. But if the bomb had gone off, it could have caused multiple deaths or injuries, officials said.

"The device appeared to be operational, it appeared to be deadly, and it was intended to inflict multiple casualties,'' said Special Agent Frederick Gutt, a spokesman for the FBI's Seattle field office.

Law enforcement sources familiar with the device, which is being analyzed at the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., said it had a remote detonator and was positioned so that any blast would have been directed at the crowd of marchers. "Someone obviously took some time with it,'' said one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is unfolding.

But several officials played down initial reports that the bomb was one of the most potentially destructive in U.S. history. "That's a stretch,'' said one law enforcement official. "Undoubtedly, it was viable, but in relation to other devices uncovered over time across the country, it will fall within that spectrum.''

The FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating, and Frank Harrill, the supervisory senior resident FBI agent in Spokane, said the timing of the near-miss on Martin Luther King Jr. Day "is a matter of grave concern.''

"The confluence of the march, the route, the timing is inescapable,'' Harrill said.

Federal officials noted that there is a history of white supremacist and militia activity in the Northwest region but said it is too soon to tell whether that played a role in the incident. "We don't know the motive,'' Gutt said. "But obviously, with its placement at a Martin Luther King Day event, the obvious suggestion is it would be related to that.''

Gutt praised the fast action of city workers and police in handling the Swiss Army backpack, which also contained severalT-shirts. Local officials rerouted the parade, which went on as scheduled. "It's all about prevention,'' he said.

markonj@washpost.com Staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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