Why Isn’t the Federal Government Treating the Maine OWS Attack as WMD Terrorism?

Mohamed Osman Mohamud’s alleged terrorist act was to take an inert bomb constructed by the FBI and attempt to detonate it in Portland, OR’s Courthouse Square; had he succeeded, a bomb would have gone off in a public space full of people and, possibly (as prosecution filings later emphasized), damaged the nearby federal courthouse as well.

Najibullah Zazi’s crime was to take common chemicals found in any kitchen or bathroom–acetone and hydrogen peroxide–in hopes of turning them into an explosive to deploy on NY’s subways.

On Sunday morning, someone threw a bottle containing household cleaning solvents–not dissimilar from Zazi’s raw materials–into the public square occupied by Occupy Maine. Like Courthouse Square in Portland, OR, Lincoln Park, in Portland ME, is within blocks of the federal courthouse. Mohamud’s target, like that of the unknown bomber in ME, was a square full of people. And in ME–unlike OR–that crowd of people was engaging in political speech.

In other words, the attack in ME–even if it was as pathetic as Mohamud’s alleged attack or that of any number of aspirational Muslim terrorists–was an attempt to use a WMD, since explosives qualify as a WMD. And even more than Mohamud’s alleged attack, this was an attempt to achieve political ends through violence. Terrorism.

And yet, according to anonymous police sources, the Feds don’t think any federal laws were violated when this unknown bomber engaged in WMD terrorism.

Federal investigators have been contacted, but as of Monday the incident did not appear to have violated any federal laws, police said.


The city contacted federal authorities, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Attorney for Maine.

The ATF said such devices do not violate federal law because they are less dangerous than more powerful explosives, such as dynamite or black powder, and don’t throw shrapnel as a pipe bomb would.

Police would have to determine the motive of the person who threw the device to decide whether civil rights or other federal charges are warranted. That would bring the U.S. Attorney’s Office into the investigation. [my emphasis]

This, in spite of the fact that the people in the car yelled “get a job” before throwing the bomb.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this attack equates to real terrorism, the kind of attack that Abdulmutallab tried or even that Faisal Shahzad tried. Nevertheless, it does equate to a lot of things the FBI has called attempted use of a WMD and terrorism.

And yet, somehow, in the absence of a young Muslim man goaded on and provided explosives by the FBI itself, the FBI doesn’t see it as terrorism.

24 replies
  1. scribe says:

    Actually, if you look at the satellite photos of Lincoln Park, you’ll see that the park is bounded on the west by a large firehouse, on the southwest by the US District Court (which takes up a full blockand therefore adjoins the park), on the south by a block-sized complex containing a law library and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (the highest court in the state), and on the east (across a large-ish highway) by a Catholic Cathedral and school.

    Outside the screenshot EW used – 4 blocks or so down the street to the south – is US Homeland Security, Customs, and Coast Guard.

  2. SteveInNC says:

    “Get a job” seems to be a common refrain. I was at Occupy Raleigh the other week when an empathy-challenged individual in an Escalade (not a coincidence?) drove by and yelled that at the group with whom I was standing. Fortunately, nothing worse than words were thrown.

  3. Horace Boothroyd III says:

    The presumption is that the bomb makers are conservative white people. Thus they get a free pass on terrorizing others.

  4. Jim White says:

    I’ll bet that had the very same bottle with the very same mixture been tossed over the wall into the Bushies’ compound in Kennebunkport that WMD charges would have been filed in an instant. Even if the Bushies had been in Texas at the time…

  5. bmaz says:

    Hmmm, well, to put it in context, a simple Molotov cocktail is prohibited under federal law and falls under the jurisdiction of ATF, so this:

    The ATF said such devices do not violate federal law because they are less dangerous than more powerful explosives, such as dynamite or black powder, and don’t throw shrapnel as a pipe bomb would.

    is basically garbage.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @bmaz: But bmaz! It was not in a vodka bottle, it was in a Gatorade bottle. It was just a sugarwater cocktail, you see?

    Man, I’m so specious I could work in Obama’s DOJ.

  7. bmaz says:

    Can’t vouch for this, but sounds like it could be close:

    The science is simple, the reaction create hydrogen gas, the gas expands and it make the bottle burst open with a loud bang. Then boys smile because they made a loud noise, yippie. But the bottle bursts with sub-explosive force. I don’t remember the exact number, but at one time the ATF published a feet-per-second speed of a chemical reaction to legally call it “explosive”. I think it was something over 9000fps, faster than a bullet and it was definitely over 3000fps, a fast-speed even for a bullet. One of these kiddie-bombs must rupture with a psi under 100, which assuming a 2L bottle of air, calculates to something around 300fps – on par with a BB gun by speed, but more foot-pounds by volume making it more damaging. Enough to break a few fingers. There are very simple mechanical ways of creating much larger ‘explosions’ measured by speed and energy output. I don’t think putting a tank of non-flammable compressed air in your oven is called “a bomb”, but it would deliver more energy than these do when it ruptures.

    They are not Destructive Devices (ie military grenades). They are not legally “explosives” as there is no explosion. The chemical reaction of 2Al + 3H2SO4 —> 3H2 + Al2(SO4)3 is not on the explosives listing at the ATF, so they are also not prohibited by Federal regulation (as far as I can tell).

    Which makes the application of federal law to using toxic chemicals to coat things the victim would touch in the Bond case pretty interesting when considering the Maine bombers.

  8. KWillow says:

    It IS terrorism. The reason for the bomb was to hurt protestors, and hopefully frighten other would-be protestors. Who will bring their kids to the non-violent protests knowing there are persons out there who’ll throw explosives at them?

    If the attack was funded by the 1%ers, then it is most definitely Terrorsim in the Old Fashioned sense.

  9. emptywheel says:

    @bmaz: Yeah, see that’s what bugs me here. You’ve got aspirational terrorist after aspirational terrorist who only gets to imagine he has the ability to really blow something up bc an FBI agent profiles him and then offers him those explosives so he can be charged as a terrorist.

  10. scribe says:

    @bmaz: You sure sober up smart.

    But, I think the #1 thing distinguishing the OWS-M chemical bomb from a destructive device is that, in general, an “explosion” is a very fast burning, i.e., combustion. The burning rates you cite above are measures of how quickly the explosive material burns.

    There is nothing here – one way or the other – to tell us whether the mixture (allegedly) used in the OWS-M bomb actually caught fire, or whether it just burst the gatorade bottle. Obviously, if it produced hydrogen and the hydrogen ignited, that would produce a significant explosion because hydrogen burns very quickly. If it was just escaping gas that didn’t burn, different story.

    But, to be fair, I think that distinction – did it catch fire or not – matters only for purposes of whether it’s a “destructive device” under the 1934 National Firearms Act. If it is, then ATF clearly has jurisdiction. OTOH, I don’t think it matters one bit for whether it’s a WMD. Whether ATF has anything to do with a non-burner, I dunno.

    And I’m sure being exposed to breathing Drano fumes is not much less harmful than being exposed to a chemical weapon.

    And, applying the “you mighta hurt somebody or nicked a federal building” test from Portland, Oregon, it was terrism. People were actually hurt – the one woman lost her hearing in one ear for a while.

  11. bmaz says:

    @scribe: Yeah, at this point I pretty much assume there was no burning explosion, just that it expanded and blew the Gatorade bottle or whatever. Must have been a healthy enough boom though to do that hearing damage. On the other hand, the more concentrated Drano can burn the crap out of skin and would likely blind if it got in one’s eyes sufficiently.

  12. bmaz says:

    @emptywheel: See, those are different because those start out as cases where the Feds are LOOKING to make a federal case, not where they are looking not to. Very different.

  13. scribe says:

    @bmaz: Well, according to the early reports it was a healthy enough boom to lift the table it landed under by about a foot. And that was a table it took two people to lift for moving around.

    Now, think about breathing Drano. Real pleasant, for something not a chemical weapon or a WMD.

  14. rosalind says:

    (totally personal OT: i rarely pimp out a post i’ve written, but in memory of my late, great boss rock promoter Bill Graham i’ve put up a remembrance over at MyFDL, should any fellow Bay Area rockers of a certain vintage be around…)

  15. klynn says:

    Ah the big question. When they are closing in on the OWS-Me bomber(s) will they check on their consumption of couscous, falafel and hummus and change the charges?

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