The Anarchist Cookbook, written by William Powell in 1971, was a book on DIY terrorism. It was largely a book of recipes—for building nitric acid explosives out of everyday objects, for making homemade nitroglycerin, for manufacturing explosives, for making rudimentary telecommunications phreaking devices, for home manufacturing of illicit drugs, including LSD, for constructing bombs out of fertilizer, and for putting bombs in mailboxes.
Written by a 19-year-old antiwar activist in anger against the United States involvement in the Vietnam War, the murder manual had a simple premise: Armed with a little bit of knowledge and some everyday household materials, anyone can be dangerous. The Anarchist Cookbook caused uproar almost instantly, tempting people to use the recipes in predictably destructive ways.
The Anarchist Cookbook fostered a generation of anarchic rebellion. At the time of its publication, one FBI memo described the book as “one of the crudest, low-brow, paranoiac writing efforts ever attempted”. According to the FBI, within a year of its publication, bombings increased to an average of five a day.
The Croatian radicals who bombed Grand Central Terminal and hijacked a TWA flight in 1976; the Puerto Rican separatists who bombed FBI headquarters in 1981; Thomas Spinks, who led a group that bombed at least 10 American abortion clinics in the mid-1980s; and the 2005 London public-transport bombers – the heinous crimes were all linked to the Cookbook.
In the beginning, The Anarchist Cookbook was available only at a single independent publishing house, hence the proliferation was limited. In the late 1970s, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis created a decentralized system called Usenet, using homemade modems, which plugged into the ARPANET, linking a few universities across the United States. Usenet was the mechanism through which the book’s reach spread like wildfire. From Usenet, it spilled over onto the modern-day Internet. Now the reach was global. The book was unstoppable. The book was viral.
In the mid-1990s, the mainstream media published a lot of stories warning about the dangerous combination of The Anarchist Cookbook and the Internet. A story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentioned how a “teenager’s fascination with explosives led him to the Internet for instructions on how to build a pipe bomb and then cost him some of his fingers when a bomb exploded in his hand”. USA Today called using the Internet to look up directions for making bombs a “new teen fad”. A 1996 piece in The Washington Post speculated that the tripling in the number of criminal bombings in the United States between 1986 and 1994 could be largely attributed to the Internet.
An English businessman, Terrance Brown, in 2001 started a website www.anarchist-cookbook.com where he was selling The Anarchist Cookbook as an online download and as a collection of CD-ROMs, apart from selling a derivative of the book called Anarchist Cookbook 2000. The version Brown was selling contained things like guides about how to use computer viruses, readymade viruses, information on how to hack chat applications like AOL or MSN, tips on cracking passwords for Windows, and something called the art of making bongs.
When Manchester Police raided Brown’s home, an Al Qaeda training manual was found on a computer; they called the evidence carted away the largest single cache of terrorist information ever discovered in the country. In 2010, Brown was convicted on 10 counts, ranging from collecting information that could be used for terrorism to dissemination of that same information.
In April 2011, Canadian law enforcement officials arrested Mohamed Hassan Hersi at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport as he was boarding a plane to Cairo to join the jihadi terrorist group Al Shabaab. The USB drive he was carrying contained a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. In 2013, renewed calls were made in the United States to ban this book, citing links to a school shooting in Colorado by Karl Pierson.
All the chaos, criticism and disrepute lead Powell to disown his book. “I want to state categorically that I am not in agreement with the contents of The Anarchist Cookbook and I would be very pleased (and relieved) to see its publication discontinued. The central idea to the book was that violence is an acceptable means to bring about political change. I no longer agree with this… I consider it to be a misguided and potentially dangerous publication which should be taken out of print,” he declared.
“Over the years, I have come to understand that the basic premise behind the Cookbook is profoundly flawed. The anger that motivated the writing of the Cookbook blinded me to the illogical notion that violence can be used to prevent violence. I had fallen for the same irrational pattern of thought that led to US military involvement in both Vietnam and Iraq. The irony is not lost on me. To paraphrase Aristotle: it is easy to be angry. But to be angry with the right person, at the right time and to the right degree that is hard—that is the hallmark of a civilized person,” Powell wrote in The Guardian.
“The Anarchist Cookbook has been found in the possession of alienated and disturbed young people who have launched attacks against classmates and teachers. I suspect that the perpetrators of these attacks did not feel much of a sense of belonging, and the Cookbook may have added to their sense of isolation. I do not know the influence the book may have had on the thinking of the perpetrators of these attacks, but I cannot imagine that it was positive. The continued publication of the Cookbook serves no purpose other than a commercial one for the publisher. It should quickly and quietly go out of print,” he added.
Even if the book were to be withdrawn, it wouldn’t matter – Because it had now become a virtual cookbook. The collection of the most dangerous ideas is today accessible via the smartphones of the disaffected teenagers from California, to the ISIS fighters in Iraq. The book is still widely available from retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, even though it’s linked to dozens of terrorist acts around the world.
1976 Croatian nationalists hijack a plane and plant a bomb in Grand Central Station, killing a police officer. The leader says he learned to make the bomb from The Anarchist Cookbook.
1976 Phoenix hood John Adamson plants a car bomb that kills a reporter who had been investigating organized crime. Police find a copy of the Cookbook in Adamson’s apartment.
1980 Police find the book, along with a list of 50 targeted businessmen, in a New Jersey apartment used by Puerto Rican separatists who have set off more than 100 bombs.
1984 A New Jersey cop nabs two fugitives linked to the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army. In their car? Explosives, guns, and the Cookbook.
1985 Police find a copy of the Cookbook in the storage locker of Thomas Spinks, who led a group of fanatics that bombed 10 abortion-related facilities on the East Coast.
1993 A group of white supremacists is arrested for plotting to kill Rodney King. Their arsenal includes grenades, pipe bombs, and other weapons built following recipes in the Cookbook.
1998 Kip Kinkel murders his parents then goes on a shooting spree at his Springfield, Oregon, school, killing two students and wounding 22. Earlier, he brought the Cookbook to school.
2005 A search of the apartments used by the London 7/7 bombers yields explosives, an improvised detonator, and excerpts from the Cookbook on the shards of a broken CD.
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