On Sept. 14, 2010, a dry cleaner in Toronto, Canada, found something suspicious. In a bag of clothes dropped off by a client, a USB stick had likely been left in one of his pockets. Curious, he plugged the small device into a computer and read through the contents. Two days later, the dry cleaner called the police.
The following April, Canadian law enforcement officials arrested the USB drive’s owner, Mohamed Hassan Hersi, at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport as he was boarding a plane to Cairo. A joint force of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Toronto Police Department had been investigating Hersi for months. Posing as a consultant, an undercover cop had visited Hersi at his job, where he worked as a security guard. The pair became fast friends. According to the officer, whose identity was kept secret at trial, Hersi talked about a high school friend who had traveled to Somalia to join the jihadi terrorist group Al Shabaab. The cop said Hersi had indicated he intended to do the same.
Hersi’s lawyer called it entrapment, labeling it “thoughtcrime.” He insisted the undercover officer was actually the one who had brought up Al Shabaab and that Hersi was traveling to the Middle East with the intention of learning Arabic. “They were fishing,” the lawyer told the Toronto Star at a press conference in front of the courthouse. “Police can’t for instance just put a wallet down in the middle of the park and see if someone comes and picks it up and keeps the money…There have to be limits on how and when the police investigate.”
The jury didn’t buy it. After two days of deliberation, Hersi was convicted last year. A judge handed down his punishment—10 years in prison for attempting to join a terrorist group, the first person in Canada to be sentenced under the country’s post-9/11 anti-terror law.
What makes Hersi’s case so remarkable isn’t just the novelty of his sentence or the fact that a seemingly well-adjusted Canadian security guard intended to fly halfway around the world to help a bloodthirsty group of militants wage a campaign of terror. What’s fascinating was the contents of the USB drive that put him under suspicion in the first place.
The drive contained a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, a nearly half-century-old compendium of adolescent-minded destruction. It’s a book that, after its publication, was subsequently renounced by its creator even as it was picked up and propagated by the Internet’s nebulous rampaging hordes. It’s a book with a simple premise: Armed with a little bit of knowledge and some everyday household materials, anyone can be dangerous.
Stewart Brand, the tech pioneer, told Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak that “information wants to be free.” When The Anarchist Cookbook disseminated online, that maxim of the Internet age acquired a newfound edge of menace.
‘The most outrageous, unpopular things’
The Anarchist Cookbook has quite possibly the strangest author’s note of any book on Amazon. Instead of thanking readers for their support or giving insight into the work’s meaning, author William Powell does something markedly different.
“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,” he writes. “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.”
When he started working on the book in 1968, Powell was just another angry young man adrift in New York City. He’d moved to the city from the nearby suburb of White Plains one year earlier, after dropping out of school at the age of 17 to work at a Manhattan bookstore.
It’s a book with a simple premise: Armed with a little bit of knowledge and some everyday household materials, anyone can be dangerous
In a lengthy interview with Harper’s writer Gabriel Thompson, Powell recalled becoming radicalized by dual pressures, both triggered by the war in Vietnam. For one, he saw how law enforcement was increasingly taking an adversarial role against youth culture. He told Thompson about how cops from the city’s “Public Morals Division” came into his bookstore looking for counterculture magazines and comics, which he deftly hid before they could find them. He attended anti-war demonstrations and saw cops beating nonviolent protestors bloody.
Since he dropped out of school, Powell was also eligible for the draft. While he was ultimately labeled as unfit for military service, the idea that he could be shipped to Vietnam at moment’s notice to die for a cause he actively despised was crushing. He felt like he had to do something to fight the injustice he saw around him. So he quit his job, procured a typewriter, and started writing furiously.
The Anarchist Cookbook is largely a book of recipes—for drugs, for explosives, for trouble. It contains directions on how make LSD and tips for growing magic mushrooms. There are sections about constructing bombs out of fertilizer, putting bombs in mailboxes, and “how to send a car to Hell.”
In a section titled “Do You Hate School?” Powell wrote:
One of my favorites for getting out of a class or two is to call in a bomb threat. Tell ’em that it is in a locker. Then they have to check them all, whilst you can slip away for an hour or two. You can even place a fake bomb (in any locker but YOURS!). They might cancel school for a week while they investigate (of course, you will probably have to make it up in the summer).
Some of the information Powell knew from his years ensconced in the counterculture and as a disaffected teen who once stole a car with some friends and took it on a joyride down to North Carolina. He took other parts of the text from military manuals he found while researching at the New York Public Library.
Once it was completed, Powell submitted the manuscript to a number of publishers. It was immediately rejected across the board—with one notable exception.
Lyle Stuart’s eponymous publishing house was ensconced in scandal. Stuart had a knack for picking controversial, risqué books that resonated with an unexpectedly large number of readers. He put out a book version of a four-hour speech given by Cuban President Fidel Castro called History Will Absolve Me. He published the 1969 novel Naked Came the Stranger, a salacious story of marital infidelity on Long Island that was secretly penned by a group of cynical journalists who wanted to satirize the public’s penchant for low-quality smut masquerading as serious fiction. With each writer taking on a single chapter, they stitched together an intentionally terribly written tale packed to the gills with raunchy sex scenes. It immediately became a bestseller. When the truth of the book’s authorship was revealed, sales went up even further.
As soon as Stuart saw Powell’s book, he knew he had something special. “I liked it, but nobody else did—and of course no other publisher would touch it. You know, it tells you how to make Molotov cocktails and blow up police stations,” he later told The Washington Post in 1978. Eighteen years later: “I’ve always tested the limits of the First Amendment. I’m a great believer in letting anybody publish the most outrageous, unpopular things there are.”
Stuart, who passed away in 2006, gave Powell a $2,000 advance and printed the book without altering a word.
“I consider it to be a misguided and potentially dangerous publication which should be taken out of print.”
The Anarchist Cookbook caused an uproar almost the instant it was published. Contained in the book’s 171-page FBI file are documents like a 1971 letter from Texas Congressman George Mason to J. Edgar Hoover asking for help in calming his constituents’ concerns about the threat posed by the book.
“The book is not politically motivated,” noted an internal bureau description of the book also contained in the FBI file. “Hippies and yippies already are aware of the contents, therefore the book is written for the square, the establishment, who desires to know what the revolution and drug culture is all about. … The author of the book does not see much hope for the individualistic acts of terror, but … emphasizes that the real revolution will require the American people and he has trust in them.”
Virality in the era of Usenet
It didn’t take long before people started using The Anarchist’s Cookbook in predictably destructive ways.
In 1976, a group of Croatian nationalists hijacked a plane flying out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport and planted a bomb inside Grand Central Terminal. Police located the bomb, but the device exploded as they tried to disarm it, killing one officer and injuring three more. The cell’s leader, Zvonko Busic, was arrested after the plane touched down in Paris. When investigators asked Busic about the bomb, he said he learned how to make it by reading The Anarchist Cookbook.
That same year, police in Phoenix, Ariz., discovered a copy of the book in the apartment of John Adamson, who had used a car bomb to murder a reporter investigating organized crime in the area.
It was also found in a storage locker used by radical pro-life activist Thomas Spinks, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for blowing up nearly a dozen abortion clinics.
The Anarchist’s Cookbook‘s proliferation initially spread only as far as people who were willing and able to physically sell it, limiting its reach mostly to independent bookshops and hand-me-downs from knowing older brothers. As the book rippled across America, a pair of Duke University graduate students in the late 1970s were figuring out how to link their computers together into a new kind of network.
Using homemade modems, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis created a decentralized system called Usenet that plugged into the ARPANET, a precursor to the modern Internet linking a handful of universities across the United States. Usenet functioned like a bulletin board service where users could post messages for each other. It started by linking Duke with the nearby University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, but it quickly grew exponentially.
Truscott and Ellis called it the “poor man’s ARPANET.” Getting a computer to hook into that network took upward of $100,000 and the explicit backing of a major research institution. Usenet, on the other hand, only cost as much as a computer that could run the Unix operating system, a modem to get online, and however much the telephone company charged for the time spent online. Otherwise, posting content and reading whatever else was posted by the other computer science nerds on the new network was completely free.
It’s hard to say precisely when The Anarchist Cookbook, or at least excerpts from it, first landed online, but Usenet was almost undoubtedly the mechanism through which it made the leap from ink to a collection of ones and zeros. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of that transition. From Usenet, it spilled over onto the modern-day Internet.
The Anarchist Cookbook is largely a book of recipes—for drugs, for explosives, for trouble.
Before the Internet, the information contained in the cookbook was only available to people within reach of a single independent publishing house. Afterward, it was everywhere.
Around the same time that the first bits of Powell’s creation started beaming from one computer to the next, the author made his own drastic change. He left the U.S. in the late 1970s for locales like Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Jakarta, Indonesia. The man who once penned advice for getting out of class by calling in bomb threats became a teacher specializing in developing special education programs for kids in developing countries. He founded a pair of organizations—Education Across Frontiers and Next Frontier: Inclusion—aimed at increasing access to specialized educational services and even coauthored a book with his wife on the subject, Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Teacher.
“Over the years, I have come to understand that the basic premise behind the Cookbook is profoundly flawed,” Powell wrote in a 2013 essay for the Guardian calling for the publisher to remove the book from print. “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,” he continued. “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.”
However, when Powell first inked his deal with Stuart, he granted the publisher sole copyright to the work, which Stuart, who passed away in 2006, eventually sold. Without holding the book’s intellectual property, Powell has no ability to control its future publication. In more ways than one, the book took on a life of its own as soon as it left Powell’s hands.
Even if the book were withdrawn, it wouldn’t matter. What Powell had unleashed with the publication of The Anarchist Cookbook would soon become unstoppable. To use the parlance of our time, it was about to go viral.
A virtual cookbook
The website www.anarchist-cookbook.com may be long gone, but its ghost still hunts the Internet—at least, if you know where to look. A record is held in the virtual vault of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which saves snapshots of old websites for posterity.
On a day in 2007, a message on the site read:
We provide the Anarchist Cookbook here in the name of freedom of speech and non suppression of knowledge. Those who try to stop this publication are as guilty as the Nazi’s of World War 2 burning books, for fear of what the knowledge might do. We do NOT advocate the use of violence to further your own thoughts or feelings, nor do we support crime or criminal activities. Activities described in the Anarchist Cookbook can be dangerous and illegal if carried out and we ask you to respect others after reading this publication.
The site was created by Portsmouth, England, businessman Terrance Brown in 2001. Brown was selling The Anarchist Cookbook alternately as an online download and a collection of CD-ROMs. Or at least, he was selling a derivative of the cookbook called Anarchist Cookbook 2000.
USA Today called using the Internet to look up directions for making bomb a “new teen fad.”
In the years since Powell had parted ways with the cookbook, people who shared his teenage mindset have added to it, adapting it to the changing times. The version Brown was selling contained things like guides about how to use computer viruses, “ready made viruses,” info on how to hack then-popular chat applications like AOL or MSN, tips on cracking passwords for Windows, and something called “the art of making bongs.”
The site also sold what it claimed was an Al Qaeda training manual that was “found on a computer by Manchester Police during a raid in the U.K … [and] translated into English to be used as evidence.”
Unsurprisingly, the British government didn’t take too kindly to someone selling copies of an Al Qaeda manual to anyone with an Internet connection. When police raided Brown’s home in an effort to shut his operation down for good, they called the evidence carted away the largest single cache of terrorist information ever discovered in the country. For his part, Brown insisted he had no terrorist sympathies. He was only in it for the money. In his defense, he argued there was a message on the website instructing terrorists not to order the book—although he didn’t take any steps to verify the identities of the buyers.
In 2010, Brown was convicted on 10 counts ranging from collecting information that could be used for terrorism to dissemination of that same information.
Raiding Brown’s home, of course, did little but hemorrhage the spread of the book. A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted: “The excuse raised by Mr. Brown at trial was that his activities amounted to no more than the lawful exercise of his right to freedom of expression in relation to material that was freely available on the Internet and that was similar in type, if not volume, to that sold by other online booksellers.”
The report’s conclusion is undeniably correct. The Anarchist Cookbook was easily accessible online. As a young teenager in the late 1990s, I was able to download a copy of the book on my family’s computer after seeing someone talk about it in an AOL chatroom. I hid the file somewhere deep in a maze of folders in an effort to avoid having to explain to my parents why I had downloaded an infamous instruction manual for making bombs.
My parents never found the text file—or if they did, they never brought it up (probably because I never improvised any explosive devices)—but the information was certainly accessible to anyone with a modicum of computer ability. It wasn’t just the continually updating versions of The Anarchist Cookbook that found their way online, either. Similar pre-Internet manuals like The Poor Man’s James Bond, a multivolume tome written by former American Nazi Party survivalist Kurt Saxon, were also available in the digital realm.
In the mid-1990s, the media published a whirlwind of stories warning of the dangerous combination of The Anarchist Cookbook and the Internet. A story in in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recalls 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 bomb 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. “There is somewhat of a correlation between the information that’s out there on the Internet and some of these [bombing] incidents,” Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms chief Bill Albright told the Post.
The fear engendered by the book’s circulation online was as global as the Internet itself.
The fear engendered by the book’s circulation online was as global as the Internet itself. That same year, a story in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post ominously warned:
Imagine this scene. You are sitting in a trendy Internet cafe, some time in the near future. A young man sits at the computer next to you. He sips a cappuccino and eats a croissant. He looks like any other young man.
He is not. In fact, he hates society, and he wants to kill people. He is using the Internet to get the recipe for a “pipe bomb”, the same kind of homemade explosive that killed two people and injured more than 100 at the Atlanta Olympics. And once he has the recipe, he will go out and buy all the ingredients he needs—at his local hardware store.
The man sitting next to you is a new and frightening kind of criminal. He is a DIY terrorist, and he is changing the face of modern terrorism. And, if the concerns of Western security experts are realised, homemade explosives are just the start.
In a way, the fact that it was possible to discover how to build bombs and other illicit material online tainted the entire Internet. During the inquiry into whether Richard Jewell had planted a bomb at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, investigators tried to determine if Jewell “tapped into the Internet at a college where he worked as a security guard.” (Jewell was, as you may remember, later found to be innocent.)
The Anarchist Cookbook was, at its heart, a work of aggregation, a collection of the most dangerous ideas that one frustrated radical could find all cobbled together into a single location. Powell didn’t invent techniques for making LSD or mailbox bombs; he just put them all in one place. Now that same ability to seek out those same most dangerous ideas is contained in the smartphone sitting in your pocket—as accessible to the disaffected teenagers in their parents’ basements in California as it is to the disaffected teenagers fighting for ISIS in Iraq. The book caused such an uproar because it was decades ahead of its time.
In his essay for the Guardian, Powell seemed the most torn-up about the effect his book had on children, which is unsurprising coming from a man who spent the vast majority of his life working to better the lives of some of the world’s more vulnerable kids.
“The 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,” he wrote. “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 … It should quickly and quietly go out of print.”
Powell’s motives may be pure, but they’re also naïve. The cookbook and its descendants are out there on the Internet, and they’ll likely exist somewhere in that virtual space until the online world sputters out. Even if there never were an Anarchist Cookbook, all the information contained in the tome would have certainly made its way onto the Internet in some form or another—cobbled together piece by piece by people with urges to destroy, for whom there appears to be no better alternative.
This knowledge would always, eventually, have become free. For someone whose life work has been rebuilding young lives—to battle that destructive impulse and turn it into something good—this may well be Powell’s ultimate solace.
Illustration by J. Longo