- Update: Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction for trying to explode a car bomb in New York's Times Square
- In May 2010, a car filled with propane and other explosive materials was armed and ready to explode in Times Square in New York City
- Making bombs is illegal under federal and many states' laws
- The first step to protecting yourself and others is to be vigilant
- Know what to do if you suspect a bomb or bomb-making activities
Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty to all 10 counts in a criminal indictment for attempting to explode a car bomb in New York’s Times Square. The charges included conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, attempting an act of international terrorism and transportation of an explosive.
Shahzad received explosives training and funds for bomb making from a Taliban group in Pakistan. He said the attempted bombing was to avenge US attacks against Muslim nations.
Shahzad is scheduled to be sentenced in October 2010. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison.
The US came face-to-face with terrorism on September 11, 2001. Sure, there were incidents before that, like the Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center bombings, but 9/11 really showed how terrorism in the US is a constant threat.
Times Square 2010
On May 1, 2010, an SUV filled with propane, gasoline, fireworks, and gunpowder was armed and ready to explode in Times Square in New York City. Duane Jackson, a street vendor working near where the SUV was parked, alerted local police when he noticed smoke and odd sounds coming from the vehicle.
More police, the bomb squad, and firefighters were called in, and thousands of people were evacuated from the area. The bomb was defused before it could explode. No one was hurt, but the explosion could've been catastrophic. Late on May 3, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized US citizen from Pakistan, was arrested at JFK airport in New York as he was attempting to leave the country.
Bomb-Making Is Illegal
Of course, you probably don't need to be told that it's illegal to try to detonate a car or truck filled with explosives. If federal prosecutors can build a case against him, Shahzad likely will be charged with numerous crimes. These may include charges of making and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and terrorism under laws such as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
You don't need to make big, mobile bombs like Shahzad's, or even try to use one, to get into legal trouble, either. There are federal laws making it illegal to make or possess a destructive device. This covers practically everything from the pipe bombs you hear about frequently to "molotov cocktails" - bottles filled with gas or other fluid that are thrown after lighting a rag wick.
Many states have similar laws making it illegal to make or possess bombs.
In 1994, the US Congress passed a law making it illegal to distribute or pass out information about building bombs. However, the law only applies when the information is passed out to help someone commit a federal crime. So, for example, if you post bomb-making instructions on your website along with encouragements for readers to use the bombs, you've likely broken the law. And, if convicted, you'd face a fine of up to $250,000, up to 20 years in prison, or both.
So, because this federal law applies in rare circumstances, and because we have a First Amendment right to read or write pretty much whatever we want, instructions for making bombs and all sorts of weapons are available online, in many libraries, and in bookstores.
It's not illegal to have these instructions, but it's illegal to make the bombs and many of the other weapons you may find in them. And, of course, having such materials in your house or on your computer can be hard evidence against you if you're ever investigated for bomb-related activities.
Bombs and explosive devices can be made from things in your home, like household cleaners, drain cleaner, bleach, and soap. They can also be made with things you can find in any neighborhood, like gas, propane, liquid petroleum (the gas for your grill), and fertilizer, just to name a few.
Instructions can be found easily, but they're really not needed. Basic information about chemistry and electrical wiring are online or at the library.
How do we stay safe? First of all, if you're thinking about making some sort of bomb, don't. Even if it's a joke or prank, or a science experiment, you can get into trouble for making it, whether or not it works and whether or not you intend to use it or actually use it.
As for the rest of us, we need to take Duane Jackson's lead and stay vigilant. Be aware of your surroundings and of anything that seems strange or out of place. If you see something suspicious, contact the police immediately. You can also send an online tip to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or call the FBI office in your area.
Unfortunately, the threat of terrorism is very real and ever present. The best defense is for us all to be on the look out and report potentially dangerous activities.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can I get into trouble if I give a tip to police but I'm wrong and nothing illegal was actually taking place?
- If I help a friend build a bomb just as an experiment but he goes ahead and uses to hurt someone, can I get into trouble too, even I had nothing to do with his plan?
- Can my local library refuse to let me take out bomb-building and similar books simply because I'm under 18?