title for Bombmaking note
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section heading icon     overview

This page considers bombmaking and other terrorist information on the net.

It covers

  • introduction – are online bomb recipes a contemporary myth
  • offline – what is available in print
  • statistics – how much information, who is looking at it?

A perspective is provided in a complementary note regarding online and offline 'murder manuals'.

subsection heading icon     Introduction

In discussing censorship, free speech and information flows we have noted that three preoccupations of regulators, the media and the community are the availability of online -

  • primers on suicide
  • information about DIY bomb construction or poison manufacture and primers for 'hit men' or disgruntled neighbours, partners and employees
  • child pornography.

As with cybersuicide, the prevalence and significance of online 'bomb kits' or poison guides is unclear.

Much discussion of internet primers has an anecdotal basis, with few hard figures about the number of sites or their use and little effort to relate online information to what is available offline (whether in print, in classrooms, in military units or through word of mouth among the wider community).

Uncertainty about a substantive basis for special regulation has not, however, inhibited some national and state efforts to restrict or even eliminate 'bomb sites', with for example prohibitions on publishing DIY explosives instructions or calls for criminal sanctions against publishers.

The US federal Violent & Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability Act of 1999, for example, criminalises the teaching or distribution of information on "how to make a bomb or other weapon of mass destruction" if the distributor intends use of the information to commit a federal violent crime or knows that the recipient intends to use it to commit such a crime. The penalty is a fine of US$250,000 and/or a maximum of 20 years imprisonment.

Critics have responded that use of the law to expunge pyrotechnics information from the web is inconsistent with the US Federal Government's print publication (in for example the Forestry Service's Blaster's Handbook) of details about explosive manufacture and deployment and the 1997 report on The Availability of Bombmaking Information by the Department of Justice's cybercrime unit.

Others, somewhat harshly, have labelled it as gesture politics, arguing that few publishers will admit to knowing what is in a reader's mind.

US anarchist Sherman Austin, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to distributing information related to explosives, thus perhaps unsurprisingly told the court that he "wasn't really thinking" when he hosted a primer (with a link from raisethefist.com) and that "I'd be devastated if someone used this information to harm others".

subsection heading icon     Offline

Arguably the internet's greatest significance in the dissemination of bombmaking information has been as a tool for marketing print publications and allowing people to order texts from other jurisdictions.

Much of the information that is (or has been) online derives from commercial and government publications, many of which are still available in libraries or available from mainstream retailers (eg the 1971 Anarchist Cookbook, Improvised Munitions Black Book or Big Book of Mischief from Amazon.com or primers direct from 'survivalist' publishers such as Loompanics).

1995 testimony by US academic Frank Tuerkheimer noted that the 1986 Encyclopedia Britannica

reveals great detail on explosive manufacture, similar in many respects to the information disseminated electronically of concern to the [Senate Judiciary] Committee and others, including, on page 279, a description of the Ammonium Nitrate/Fuel Oil mixture used in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Much information is presumably available by word of mouth - enthusiasts who are intelligent or merely persistent can for example devise basic explosives on the basis of classroom science experiments - or in academic and industry publications.

In 1962 the US Patent Office for example granted patent 3,060,165 regarding use of ricin as a biological weapon. That patent was publicly available for several decades and was online until after the culling of US federal government sites following September 11 that is discussed elsewhere in this site. The patent is, however, still available in non-US databases and can for example be accessed via the European Patent Office.

Basic information is also available in the mass media. In 2003 for example the 7.30 Report current affairs program on Australia's national ABC television network featured four Tasmanian documentary makers building and detonating a fertiliser bomb, similar to devices used in terrorist attacks overseas. US newspapers have offered information on peroxide-based 'kitchen sink' or 'mother of satan' explosives (including triacetone triperoxide [TAP] and , or hexamethylene triperoxide diamine [HMTD]), made by mixing chemicals in common household items, including hydrogen peroxide and paint thinner.

It is important to note that the federal censorship regime in Australia requires the Office of Film & Literature Classification (OFLC) to refuse classification of any materials that "promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence".

Prior to 1996 that ban more specifically referred to

detailed instruction or encouragement in: (i) the use of terrorist-type weapons and terrorist acts, (ii) the abuse of prescribed drugs.

It is, of course, unnecessary to make explosives from scratch through trial and error. The 1998 US National Research Council Black and Smokeless Powders: Technologies for Finding Bombs and the Bomb Maker report thus commented

Black and smokeless powders are widely used for sport and recreational purposes throughout the United States. In the retail market, the powders are sold primarily for reloading of ammunition and for use in muzzle-loading firearms. Large quantities are also used for military purposes, and smaller amounts for blasting during mining. In addition to these legitimate pursuits, black and smokeless powders can also be used to manufacture improvised explosive devices. These devices, often referred to as pipe bombs, are the type most commonly used in criminal bombings in the United States. Such devices were used in some of the Unabomber's mail bombs, at the Olympics in Atlanta, and in attacks against federal judges.

subsection heading icon     Statistics

Detailed statistics about the incidence of DIY weapons information on the net and - more importantly - about its use are unavailable.

Inferences based on the reported sales of texts such as the Anarchist Cookbook or the mirroring of sites should be treated with caution, as the extent to which purchasing/copying reflects adolescent naughtiness is unknown.

Few nations have reported successful prosecutions of people for online publication of DIY weapons information or use of that information.

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version of November 2006
© Bruce Arnold
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