What Makes a Serial Bomber Tick?

A former FBI profiler looks at what we can and can’t know about the motives of the man behind the Austin bombings.

A man in an FBI jacket carries boxes out of a FedEx center.
FBI agents collect evidence at a FedEx Office facility following an explosion at a nearby sorting center on March 20, 2018, in Sunset Valley, Texas. (Scott Olson / Getty)

Austin, Texas, recently experienced 19 days of terror at the hands of an unknown figure, as hundreds of law-enforcement officers crisscrossed the Texas capital in a race to track down a shadow. We now know the “who”: The bombings are suspected to have been perpetrated by a 23-year-old, homegrown, unemployed community-college dropout named Mark Anthony Conditt. Investigators probably know the makeup of the mechanical switches he used to detonate his seven explosive devices, ones filled with smokeless powder along with nails to enhance their shrapnel effect. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the FBI likely rebuilt each device to study it. What we don’t know is the composition of the switch in the bomber’s head that, once flipped, allowed him to move forward with his assault on the sense of safety and security of the city of Austin. It’s the “why” we don’t understand.

Conditt, who would say in regard to these bombings, “I wish I were sorry, but I am not,” did not seem markedly different from other men and women his age in his community. Conditt once identified himself as politically conservative, with some making much of his six-year-old statements against abortion and gay marriage. Others countered that he was against sex offenders being labeled for life, a position perhaps associated with a more liberal base. So what drove him to murder? These were not spontaneous acts. These bombings were a planned, methodical series of decisions that he could have stopped at any point before his eventual death at his own hands.

According to law enforcement, Conditt left a graphic, 25-minute video on his cellphone before he killed himself, in which he described his bombs and bombings in great detail, but chose not to reveal his ultimate motive or the reason for his target selection. In addition to this video, police say he also left bomb-making components in his house, items that he could have used to construct even more explosive devices. It’s likely they were things such as iron pipes and caps, smokeless powder, nails, wires, and batteries. He also left behind something else that may help in determining his motive for murder: a list of addresses, possibly his “hit list” of individuals he hadn’t yet targeted.

Technically, Conditt was not a serial bomber, but a spree bomber. By definition, a serial offender has emotional cooling-off periods between offenses, during which they retreat back into their seemingly normal life. Conditt had no such pauses. But never mind the precise label—he was a killer with the full potential to continue killing had he not been stopped.

I was an early member of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, where we specialized in extrapolating possible insights into criminals’ psyches from limited information. Conditt is dead, and he did not say why he did what he allegedly did, which means we can never really know his exact motive or motives. But by examining his actions, and looking at those who have committed similar crimes, we can begin to guess at what might have been going on in his mind.

Conditt’s actions included research, planning, design, buying components, building his devices, and victim/target acquisition, as well as the development of his surreptitious methods of delivery. These actions could have taken him weeks, even months before he was ready to strike. His crimes seem more indicative of planning and design than simply raw passion.

Conditt made pipe bombs, which are one of the more common devices used by bombers, according to the ATF. They can be built relatively easily with simple materials. The Austin bomber probably studied the actions of the spree or serial bombers that came before him to devise his method.

He ultimately detonated a bomb in his car when a SWAT team attempted to arrest him, electing to commit suicide before allowing himself to be captured and exposed to society. But if the motives of those previous bombers are any indication, what we would have found had he been exposed was unlikely to be an evil genius. Bombers have tended to be emotionally and socially challenged individuals who appear to want to punish society for perceived injustices against them. Examples of such are:

The original “Mad Bomber,” George Metesky, terrorized New York for almost two decades, planting at least 33 bombs (many times concealed in a distinctive red sock) across that city, injuring 15 people. His motive: anger with his former employer concerning a workplace injury he had sustained years before.

Ted Kaczynski, a Harvard-educated former professor was the notorious “Unabomber,” built pipe bombs in the privacy of his remote Montana cabin, sending 16 bombs that killed three and injured 23 over an 18-year period. When he was captured, he had a completed bomb under his bed, bomb-making components, and his own “hit list” of potential future victims in his cabin. His motive: a hatred of modern society—especially its reliance on technology—and, possibly, revenge. He expressed no remorse.

Eric Rudolph, the so-called Olympic Park Bomber, used at least four different bombs to kill two and injure 120 people. Motive: Rudolph, a loner like Metesky and Kaczynski before him, was anti-government, anti-gay, anti-abortion, and had a general dislike for those around him. He, too, failed to express any remorse or regret for his actions.

Mark Conditt, the suspected “Austin Bomber,” who used the alias Kelly Killmore as the sender of his FedEx package bombs, like those bombers before him, also failed to express guilt or remorse. His parents said they were unaware of the “darkness” their son was in. A friend of his described him to the Los Angeles Times as smart, “intense,” “straitlaced,” lonely, and angry, and suggested: “It’s in the dark that people start getting angry and sad and eventually go off the deep end.”

Some of Conditt’s early victims were black or Hispanic, which led to speculation that his bombings were hate crimes—but later victims were white, and police said his confession video didn’t indicate he was motivated by racism. He also did not call himself a terrorist, a definition with which many struggle today. He hasn’t yet been proven to have a clear religious or political motive.

My knowledge of such offenders suggested that the Austin bomber was someone more youthful than those that came before him. The hurried frequency between events suggested he would soon make a mistake that would help identify him, while the lack of any known political or religious motive, as well as the identities of his victims, suggested this was more of a personal crime, likely committed by someone with mental-health challenges and long-held anger against society in general, as represented by the general makeup of his victims.

Did he have some unique insight into his own psyche? He labeled himself in his left-behind video as a “psychopath.” He said he had been disturbed since childhood. He can’t be diagnosed now, of course, but his “video confession,” said the Austin police chief, was “the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.”

Should the Austin bomber’s self-analysis as a psychopath (traditionally defined as a personality disorder) be correct, an investigation may find that he exhibited associated traits, like lack of empathy, impaired remorse, antisocial behavior, and perhaps other egotistical traits as well as his now-on-the-record violent social behavior.

Fortunately, spree or serial bombers are rare in this country. Unfortunately, we continue in our struggle to understand the “why” in cases like this. As we attempt our psychological autopsy of the recent bomber, we look for simple answers to explain otherwise complicated behavior. History tells us that many of these acts are committed by challenged individuals who see violence as their own form of conflict resolution. Unfortunately, the more of these types of crimes that are committed, the more examples (and the more inspiration) there are for similarly challenged individuals who end up choosing violence as their ultimate means of expression.