Suspected Bomber Arrested
Concerns over a suspected suicide bomber prompted the hours-long closure of the Capitol’s West Front on Monday afternoon.
Capitol Police arrested a 33-year-old suspect in the incident, but did not find any hazardous materials in his belongings.
Officials declined to identify the man, other than to state he is Chinese, citing the ongoing investigation.
Despite the afternoon-long shutdown of the West Front, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said the suspect will be charged with just a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct for failing to obey an officer.
“But we’re going to take a look and see if that’s sufficient based on the investigation,” Gainer said.
The incident began at approximately 12:20 p.m., when a uniformed officer observed a man in the possession of two carry-on-style suitcases standing on the lower terrace of the West Front.
“He was acting different from the rest of the crowd,” Gainer said, later noting that the man appeared to be standing still and staring.
Although suitcases are banned inside the Capitol, Gainer said such items are not prohibited on the West Front.
“Our officer approached him and tried to engage him in conversation,” Gainer said. “He was not very responsive or cooperative with the officer.
“The officer felt it was a possible suicide bomber situation and initiated police action.”
That decision prompted deployment of the department’s Containment Emergency Response Team (the agency’s version of a SWAT team) and the evacuation of the West Front terrace, an area that is open to the public and typically crowded with tourists.
Although law enforcement officials did not call for the evacuation of the Capitol, Gainer said employees in Congressional offices facing the West Front were told to move away from windows, and some used the lunch hour to leave their offices.
Similarly, public tours of the Capitol, which use the West Front terrace for entrance and exit, were also suspended sometime after the incident began.
Once the public area had been vacated, the Capitol Police employed a negotiator in an attempt to engage the suspect, who remained on the West Front.
“We began a dialogue with the individual to see if we could get some indication of what his problem was and how dangerous he might be or not be,” Gainer said.
According to police officials, the man did not make any overt threats. “He only would say at first that he wanted to speak to the president,” Gainer said.
In the meantime, four members of the CERT team positioned themselves behind the suspect, on the opposite side of a low wall that borders the terrace.
Once Capitol Police officials determined there were no wires protruding from the suitcases, and that the suspect did not appear to have a “detonating device,” Gainer said, the officers were given approval to scale the wall and tackle the suspect.
“We elected to keep him distracted and to rush him,” Gainer said, acknowledging the suspect suffered minor injuries after being wrestled to the ground around 1:45 p.m. “Our officers were in position to use less-than-lethal force if he became uncooperative.”
After taking the suspect into custody, officers shifted their attention to closer examination of the two suitcases.
After photographing both suitcases with X-ray film, the department’s Hazardous Devices Unit determined only one of the suitcases contained dangerous materials.
“That X-ray was more disturbing to us because it looked like some kind of timing device in it, wires and a substance that could have possibly been some type of explosive device,” Gainer said in reference to the second suitcase.
After the suspect declined to detail the contents of the suitcase to Capitol Police investigators, Gainer said officials decided to “render safe” the item by exploding it.
After detonating the suitcase, Capitol Police bomb technicians discovered the materials inside did not appear to be lethal.
“They examined it,” Gainer said. “ It turns out in the second suitcase, there were wires, there were batteries, but it also looks like it was merely a CD player and the timing device was a watch.”
In light of the seemingly innocuous contents discovered in the man’s suitcases, police officials defended their actions.
“I think this kind of shows you the push and pull, the balance that we have in keeping our Capitol open. We wanted to make sure it was safe and no one was in danger,” Gainer said.
He similarly praised the officer who decided to trigger the massive security effort.
“All in all, I really think the initial officer on the scene used good sound judgment on a person who was obviously trying to make some type of statement,” Gainer said.
He noted he does not believe the incident will lead to new prohibitions on suitcases and other large items on the Capitol grounds.
“I don’t think we need at this moment more restrictions,” Gainer said.
Both the Capitol and grounds reopened to the public Monday afternoon.
Police officials said as of late Monday afternoon the suspect remained in custody under interrogation by the department’s criminal division, along with the Secret Service and FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The Homeland Security Department was also involved in gathering more information about the suspect, who did not have identification on him at the time of his arrest.
It was not immediately clear whether the suspect, who Gainer described as having “recently entered the country,” was in the United States legally.