As of Sunday night, you could still order the easy-to-mix ingredients for a weapon of mass destruction on Amazon.com.
Then Amazon apparently got word of the January 24 arrest of 19-year-old Vladislav Miftakhov in Pennsylvania under Title 18, Section 2716 subsection A of the state penal code. That is the provision regarding “unlawful possession of manufacture of Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
With those three letters, a small town bust suddenly became big news. The fact that the suspect is a Russian national raised the specter of some variation on the Boston Marathon bombing. Miftakhov does not sound all that different from Tsarnaev to the American ear.
And the criminal complaint reported that when asked how he obtained the components, Miftakhov told police he had “purchased all the items on Amazon approximately three weeks ago and constructed them in his room.”
The ingredients prominently included a pound of what was listed in the complaint as “atomized magnesium 100-200 mesh” and a pound of “potassium perchlorate Chinese.” Both proved to be indeed available on Amazon.com in one-pound lots for just a few dollars on Sunday night.
But come Monday morning, attempts to call up either item on Amazon.com brought the message “Looking for something? We’re sorry. The Web address you entered is not a functioning page on our site.” Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Miftakhov pleaded not guilty at his arraignment and was consigned to the Blair County jail, unable to post the $500,000 cash bail. He allegedly told police that he had been experimenting with various mixtures of flash powder, the stuff that gives firecrackers their bang. He is said to have constructed at least two devices, complete with fuses.
“Miftakhov stated his intent was to set the devices off in a remote field and did not intend on ‘blowing anything up,’” the complaint reports.
The complaint adds, “Miftakhov stated after constructing the devices he was afraid to set the larger device off because he was scared.”
The presence of a can of static guard spray indicated that he had at least taken precautions against any sparks that might have triggered an accidental detonation when he was making the devices.
As for deliberate detonations, Miftakhov seemed more likely to be a whackadoo student at Pennsylvania State-Altoona than somebody with terrorist intent such as immediately comes to mind at the mention of a WMD. The FBI is checking his computer for any indications otherwise.
But there would have been nothing to stop somebody bent on terrorism from obtaining the materials from Amazon.com as easily as Miftakhov proved able. It is worth remembering that the Boston Marathon bombers armed their pressure cooker bombs with the insides of fireworks. Amazon.com would have saved someone with a similar purpose from having to make the trip to a fireworks store and then scrape out the insides of various whizz-bangs.
With the stuff that was available on Amazon, a bomber would have needed only apply a little static spray to a large Baggie and pour in a particular combination of the two ingredients. Amazon even has lengths of waterproof fuse available.
Thus, the Altoona police might very well have been saving lives when they embarked on a small time drug case that began with a tip from Miftakhov’s landlord that he was growing marijuana in his apartment. The criminal complaint reports that the responding officer found “a potted plant in the bed room, which contained (5) marijuana plants in the beginning stages of growth.”
The complaint adds that the officer further observed “A bottle of Schultz plant food, in plain view.”
More officers arrived and called Miftakhov’s cell phone and instructed him to return home. The officers inquired if in the meantime there was anything else in the apartment they might find of interest. Miftakhov is said to have advised them that he had marijuana seeds and a scale, which he surrendered upon his arrival.
The complaint says that Miftakhov then signed a consent-to-search form. The police report subsequently finding a suitcase containing what they describe as two explosive devices complete with fuses as well as “bomb making materials.”
“(An officer) asked Miftakhov what he intended on doing with the devices that had attached fuses and Miftakhov stated ‘he was going to blow things up,’” the complaint notes. “Miftakhov did not specify what ‘things’ were and (the officer) did not ask him to specify.”
The report goes on, “(The officer) asked Miftakhov what compounds were combined in the devices and he stated Potassium Perchlorate and the Atomized Magnesium. (The officer) through training and experience, recognized these items as key components in the bomb making process.”
Miftakhov was questioned further at an Altoona police facility, where he is said to have insisted that the only things he intended to blow up were the devices themselves, as if they were just jumbo firecrackers. He is said have further told investigators how he had bought the materials online.
The stuff would almost certainly still be available had Miftakhov been charged simply with possessing explosive materials, as he would have been in the days before 9/11. A local story would have stayed local.
But the law in Pennsylvania and numerous other states now describes such devices as weapons of mass destruction. Pennsylvania defines a WMD as “a biological agent, bomb, chemical agent or nuclear agent.”
When word apparently reached Amazon that its merchandise had been used to make a WMD, the items were suddenly no longer available.
One question that remains for Amazon is, why were they available in the first place?
Another question is whether Amazon stocks other items that could be used to make a WMD.