The Mystery of the Paris Bomb

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Charles Platiau / Reuters

French police and firemen investigate near the building where one person was killed and another was seriously injured after a booby-trapped package exploded in Paris, December 6, 2007.

Whodunit — and why? Those questions remain an almost total mystery in the parcel bombing of a central Paris lawyers' office on Thursday. However, even if security officials say they're running down scant leads on who may have been behind the attack that killed one person and wounded five others, what little is known about it seems to rule out the kinds of suspects that logically first come to mind: jihadists, Corsican nationalists and extremist political groups. Hand delivery of the booby-trapped package and the technical difficulty of constructing its limited explosive strength both suggest the work of a bomber aiming to strike a very specific target.

"Islamists prefer large, spectacular attacks, and the Corsicans usually blow up empty structures as a warning — or gun down foes when those warnings fail," says independent terror expert Roland Jacquard, who notes he has no firm idea who was behind Thursday's office attack in Paris' 8th arrondissement. "Basque terrorists have the kind of technical expertise to build such a surgically small bomb, but why would they be using it against a law practice? What little evidence we have suggests whomever was behind it was going after someone inside that office."

What makes Jacquard and a growing number of French officials think that's the case? A messenger who entered and exited without removing his motorcycle helmet delivered the accurately addressed package containing the two explosive devices to the offices. The law firm secretary who opened the parcel was killed by the twin blasts; it was addressed to her boss — one of the firm's partners — who himself was seriously wounded. Meanwhile, the limited strength of the explosion leads experts like Jacquard to doubt other organizations in the same building might have actually been the primary targets of attack. Those include the Shoah Foundation — dedicated to research on the Holocaust— on the same floor as the law firm and a first-floor legal practice that French President Nicolas Sarkozy once partially owned and worked at on and off since co-founding it in 1987 (though he sold his stake earlier this year). Within hours of the blast, officials had already termed the bombing as "unrelated" to Sarkozy's former practice being located in the same building.

"If one of the other offices were the real target, the bomb would have had to been built with a much bigger charge to be sure it reached that far," says Jacquard. Visiting the building several hours after the bomb exploded at 12:50 p.m., French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie seemed to concur: "It really appears it was someone in this office who was the target."

Why anyone would want to strike the law office is another point of mystery. Though early press reports stated the office had handled cases linked to Corsican nationalists — suggesting the possibility of their organizations' settling scores — French justice authorities later denied that information. Instead the practice handled civil cases and specialized in real estate transactions. That focus also ran counter to involvement by two other possible perpetrators: Mafia elements, and extremist groups backed by foreign secret services providing expert explosive assistance.

If the bomb wasn't meant to kill or harm someone in the law firm, then Jacquard says the only possibilities are that it was intended to be a far larger blast, or sought to gain a wider impact than its actual fire thanks to vast media coverage. That first scenario is unlikely at best, Jacquard explains, since successful detonation of the bomb — usually the aspect that goes awry in failed attacks — would have almost certainly set off the totality of the charge. The theory that the smaller explosion sought to generate an even larger shock wave in media reports seems odd as well. "What would the point being made have been — that the bomb blew up near a Jewish organization that went untouched?" Jacquard asks. "Never rule anything out, but at this point, I'd look at the client and cases the law office handled. That seems to be where this probably came from."