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Police Were Warned About Nashville Christmas Bomber Building Explosives A Year Ago

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There is a new wrinkle in the suicide bombing that rocked downtown Nashville on Christmas morning. According to police records, the perpetrator's girlfriend warned police over a year ago that he was making bombs in an RV at his home. NPR's Hannah Allam has been covering this and joins us now with more.

Hey, Hannah.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: Hi. So, OK, authorities have been saying that the suicide bomber was a man named Anthony Warner, 63 years old. He died in the blast. So far, he's been portrayed as - what? - sort of a loner who wasn't on the radar of the authorities. But we're learning more details about him now, right?

ALLAM: That's right. Now we know that an attorney for Warner's girlfriend told police in August 2019 - that's 16 months before the explosion - that Warner was building a bomb in an RV at his home. And this comes from police records that were first reported on Tuesday by The Tennessean, as well as a local news station, WTVF-TV. And those accounts say local police responded to a 911 call about a distressed, possibly suicidal woman who claimed that her boyfriend was concerned with the military and bomb-making.

Police show up. They say the RV was fenced off. An officer noted that it was equipped with, quote, "several security cameras and wires attached to an alarm sign on the front door." So the officer apparently knocks and knocks but got no answer. There was some follow-up at first, but then after late August, it appears, the attempts to investigate stopped.

CHANG: Stopped. Did they ever interview Anthony Warner about any of this?

ALLAM: No, it appears they did not. And at a news conference today, the police said a specialized officer did follow up by driving past the house for a week or so, even sniffing - literally sniffing around - to see if he smelled explosives. But the chief says he couldn't get close to the RV, that they didn't have probable cause to get a search warrant.

And, you know, today, the chief did say that hindsight is 20/20. He acknowledged that there could have been more follow-up. But there's also murkiness on the role of the federal authorities in this. The FBI says it received a records request from the local police. The FBI was aware that it was connected to allegations of bomb-making. They ran a check, found nothing serious in Warner's background - same thing at the Department of Defense. But one big question that the FBI so far hasn't publicly answered is, wasn't the bomb-making threat serious enough and unusual enough to get the attention of the local joint terrorism task force?

I asked Mary McCord about this. She's a former senior Justice Department official who oversaw terrorism cases. She says in this one, there are still a lot of unknowns. But even from the little we do know, there seem to be enough red flags to merit more follow-up - and she said, for one thing, the security cameras and alarm system around an old RV where there's been allegations about explosives. Here's McCord.

MARY MCCORD: Something more seems to me to be warranted when we're talking about a report of a bomb and objective indicators that something that he's trying to protect is happening in that RV.

CHANG: So would you, Hannah, characterize this as a situation where authorities just dropped the ball on this investigation?

ALLAM: I think that's the big question. I asked Seth Jones that. He's a former national security official, now an analyst. He says it's too early to talk about blame, but he says it's definitely a case that needs more scrutiny.

SETH JONES: There has to be a very serious look, I think, at Anthony Warner, how much they knew. Were the threats about him properly followed up, including by his girlfriend? These are serious questions because this is - what we've seen in the last year is these are the most likely kinds of attacks in the U.S. right now, which is single individuals.

ALLAM: And so, yeah. Jones is saying if it turns out authorities didn't do their due diligence in checking out this kind of threat, then that's a big problem.

CHANG: That is NPR's Hannah Allam.

Thank you, Hannah.

ALLAM: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.