It Could've Been This Easy for Boston's Bombers to Use a Cellphone Detonator

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The Associated Press reported Wednesday afternoon that bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhr Tsarnaev used a remote control of some sort to detonate their two homemade pressure cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon last Monday. The type of detonator the two men used remains unclear, but the Justice Department complaint outlining the charges against Dzhokhar makes very clear that he may have been "manipulating the phone," and that he kept his cellphone to his ear during the first explosion. (Police instructed officers and the press to turn off their phones during the shootout that killed Tamerlan late Thursday night.)

We see cellphone detonators all the time in the movies and on television, which sometimes seem to stretch the limits of even fictional terrorist technology. (Homeland, most recently.) But could two brothers living in Massachusetts have learned to make one — and make it work?

We're not going to get into the complexities of Inspire, the English-language online magazine said to be part of the brothers Tsarnaev's guide to killing four people and injuring scores more — nobody needs more information on how to build bombs. But it seems a little too easy, a little too unsettling, that something carried around by so many nonviolent people could be so easily converted into something so sinister.

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You would think making a cellphone detonator would be a complex process, requiring more than a basic understanding of electronics, but that's not the case. We were able to figure it out in a little under an hour with a little bit of Googling and intuition. Indeed, it's a little scary how easy it is to discover how to make something that eventually can be part of a larger, terrifying weapon. 

Plugging a search for "how to make a cell phone detonator" into Google won't turn up anything useful. So the lazy terrorist would be dissuaded fairly quickly. There were cellphone detonator how-to videos on YouTube, but most of them have been scrubbed — and rightfully so — for explaining how to hurt people, because that's against YouTube policy. But Googling around for more than a few minutes will show any violent-minded individual the way around that... 

Fireworks. If you specify that you're building a cellphone detonator for fireworks, then you'll discover a ton of guides on geek hobby sites — and all too quickly. Video guide makers use the guise of making cellphone detonators for fireworks to get around YouTube's do no harm policy. And what did the Tsarnaev brothers recently purchase a large quantity of? Fireworks. There's no confirmed connection between the February fireworks purchase and the Boston bombings, but experts told the New York Daily News that the amount of explosive powder Tamerlan bought from the New Hampshire firework store was enough to build one pressure cooker bomb.

It's all a fairly simple process, really. Once a phone is dissected, there's the vibrator. All someone has to do is solder two wires to the vibrator before putting the phone back together. The two wires soldered to the vibrator have to protrude from the phone. Hook the two wires up to a a hobby fuse and a circuit board — easily purchased at any hardware store — and violence is imminent.

So that's how easy it is to build a cellphone detonator — just like the pressure cooker bombs, they were made with supplies that anyone can find at any number of local stores and online. But we'll ask that you do not try this at home, ever.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.