Was the G20 hacker a mad bomber, or a model rocketry hobbyist with a nice garden?

The strange, farcical trial of Byron Sonne continues (here are earlier installments). Sonne is a Toronto hacker and security researcher who was arrested during the G20, with much attendant press about the "fact" that he had been planning to make bombs in connection with the event.

Sonne was left in jail for nearly a year before his hearings began, and his charges were recharacterised as "possessing explosive materials" and "counseling the indictable offense of mischief not committed."

Now the "explosive materials" question is being addressed in court. Sonne had a lab in his basement, and he was a gardener. He possessed many substances that a "bomb expert" from Defence Research and Development Canada called "precursors" to making explosives. They are also normal gardening substances, and/or the sort of thing that a model rocketry hobbyist (as Sonne was -- he'd been a member of the Canadian Association of Rocketry) would keep in neatly labelled vessels in his basement.

No one disputes that Sonne had a lab in his basement, stocked with glassware and neatly labelled containers (see photos here). There was potassium permanganate, potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate, iron oxide and zinc oxide. There was stearine, copper sulfate, urea, hydrogen peroxide and aluminum powder, as well as dextrin, sulfamic acid, hexachloroethane, charcoal, potassium silicate and sodium bicarbonate. Sonne had plastic bags full of wax shavings and PVC shavings, and a container of hexamine tablets next to his camp stove. There was acetone, methyl hydrate and hydrochloric acid in his garage. In his furnace room, he had an electrochemical setup where he seemed to be turning potassium chloride into potassium chlorate, a shiny white crystal that is, Anderson said, a well-known ingredient in improvised explosives like TATP (triacetone triperoxide) and HMTD (hexamethylene triperoxide diamlene).

Most of these chemicals have multiple uses. Urea and ammonium nitrate are fertilizers, and police photographed stacks of seeds from Martha Stewart Living. “That’s the difficulty with a lot of this,” Anderson said. “It can be done with ordinary kitchen stuff.” Some have no explosive properties at all. Copper sulfate can be used to grow “beautiful blue crystals,” beakers of which were found during the search.

Anderson said that none of the chemicals had been combined—what he saw were “precursors,” not a bomb. Still, the expert was sober, pointing out that there were enough precursors in the Forest Hill home to make eight to 10 kilos of explosives, enough to “blow apart the back of a bus.”

Byron Sonne: the thin line between terrorist and gardener (Thanks, Denise!)


  1. “there were enough precursors in the Forest Hill home to make eight to 10 kilos of explosives, enough to “blow apart the back of a bus.” 
    You could pretty much do the same thing with a sack of flour if you deployed it properly.

  2. And the war on science continues unabated. From making it illegal to own some labware for a home lab (since it could be used to cook crystal meth OMG!) to increasing restrictions on purchasing chemicals, the fear of bombmakers and drug labs has made it nearly impossible to do much of anything with a home lab.

    An acquaintance of mine, a chemistry professor, told me that it’s getting almost impossible to find undergrads with ANY lab experience, since we have gotten rid of the children’s chem labs, and high schools don’t do all that much chemistry anymore. So, much of what any proper chemistry nut used to learn at 10-18 years old, as they play with the safer stuff, is instead being taught at much greater expense in college.

    Same thing happens in electrical engineering BTW – the majority of EE undergrads don’t even know how to solder when they get to school. Makes them surprisingly useless as interns at research labs that actually make things…

    The sad thing is, upon reflection, if I went through my “useful chemicals” with intent, I could probably put together a nice little bang. But, it’s too f**king dangerous to do that shit.

    1. But, but, I’m an ENGINEER! I’m not supposed to  get my hands dirty (this coming from an aerospace engineer who wishes he was a mechanical engineer, who loves to get into the shop and actually MAKE something, rather than just do ‘pure design’).

      EDIT – an explanation: at the school I went to, there was this opinion among many students and staff that engineering should be a very pure, idealized process, and that the non-graduate machinists (and equivalents) should do all the manual work. This infuriates me. So many engineers don’t have a clue what is possible, and what is beyond all reasonable capability, because they’ve only done pure design. We need more people doing real things, at least in the spare time, so people have a much greater appreciation for the things that people make – and realize, that as much as it is a science, it’s also an art.

      1. Absolutely agreed (with your edit, and I think your general thrust). There’s something missing from your education if you don’t have a visceral knowledge of what can be done by a craftsman with access to the tools of your profession.  There’s only one way to get that knowledge: hands-on.

  3. So has anybody sampled the basements of rocketry and gardening enthusiasts? Or of actual confirmed bomb-making labs? I would have thought that would be much more useful to a jury trying to determine if his intent was to make bombs, rather than just telling them that in theory these chemicals could be used for both bomb- and rocket-making.

    1. Model rocket engines have a fair number of chemical formulas, but are well known. The tough part is, one of the indicators that you’ve got the mix wrong in your rocket engine is… it blows up.

      A model rocket shop, especially when you’re getting beyond the Estes kits and into making your own, is very similar to a bomb shop. You need the same scales, the same chemicals, the same mixing and casting equipment. So, if I was a paranoid police officer, I would not see the fins, and nosecones, and chutes, and rocket nozzles, and just see the “OMG we have a bomber!!” part of it.

    2. This is very much a case of error on the part of police.  If I own a really sharp knife or a gun, it is not evidence of me being a murderous killer.  I hope the man has a competent barrister.

  4. We need to arrest Rachael Ray!  I saw a knife block on her kitchen table; CLEAR precursors to murder!  & the dry cleaner around the corner from me?  All those wire coat hangers?  Clearly they are running a car theft ring, with those precursors to opening car windows! 

    1. Its worse than that.  Many of my neighbors have cars with tanks full of gasoline and dispose of a barrel full of empty glass bottles each week.  A 16-gallon tank of gasoline with these bottles can make 256 or more Molotov Cocktails!  Think of the destruction possible

    2. We need to arrest Rachael Ray!

      That would be funnier if a right wing blogger hadn’t gotten an ad pulled by Dunkin’ Donuts that showed Ray wearing a keffiyeh.

  5. “blow apart the back of a bus.”
    What a weird benchmark. I guess what he’s saying is “y’all smartypants sciency amateurs need to learn yer place.”

  6. As the war on science continues indeed. Couple this with the NDAA and no one is safe.
    How long before the US has a purging like the communists did in China 50 years ago.

  7. Describing the expert’s analysis as “sober” is already showing a bias. The expert could just as easily have said  “…there were enough precursors in the Forest Hill home to make 4 model rockets capable of reaching 10,000 feet.” or “…there were enough precursors in the Forest Hill home to grow 10 lbs of carrots and another 20lbs of kale.” 

    1. If he’s specifically being asked about bomb-making potential, it’s not incongruous.  That’s precisely what he’s there for: so that the prosecution can’t turn around and say “THIS QUANTITY  OF EEEEVIL CHEMICALS WOULD HAVE DEMOLISHED 9001 PETTING ZOOS!  FULL OF CHILDREN!!”

      What I find interesting is the expert’s opinion that he couldn’t see “…any reason other than to at some point make some sort of localized explosive.”  You couldn’t fail to argue that someone whose day job is to build home-made bombs might have a certain prejudice to a specific perspective.  A  model rocket engine is just a bomb that goes off slowly (as has frequently been pointed out).  Do the defence have a model rocketry expert witness to balance out this opinion?

      1. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To an explosives expert, a nail looks like an improvised shrapnel device.

  8. We are entering another dark age for science.  Acetone…really?…evidence?  I have that in my shop.  I feel for this guy.

    I am an electonics tech and I often make my own circuits.  I cannot count the number of times I have got the “that looks like a bomb” or “are you making bombs” comment.  I tell them to quit watching TV and they are too paranoid.  How can an intervalometer for a camera with a 10ft cord be confused for a bomb?  Ignorance to technology. 

    It won’t be long before just knowing how to prevent explosions in the lab will be considered intent to make explosives.  It is very well known that the same stuff to make acetone peroxide can accidentally be mixed while etching circuit boards…should you warn the prototypers not to put all the waste chemicals in the same container or is that enough to be considered giving the recipe to make explosives.  In order to safely store/use chemicals you have to know something about what can accidentally happen.  It was bad enough in the US when the Meth scene hit and every box of cold medicine or bottle of solvent you buy gets you strange looks (Walgreen’s enters all your drivers license info to a computer for one box of sudafed, yet you can spend up to $20 on a credit card without signing or showing ID)…now our makers are being targeted as terrorists.

  9. Well unlike the arresting officers, the court still has to show intent.  Did he intend to make a bomb to blow up a half a bus….

    Come on, Al Queda terrorists blew up a whole bus… not part of a bus.  I’ve done model rockets… At one time I did have enough ‘firecracker’ rocket engines to blow up a room in my house.  Didn’t make me a terrorist.

  10. Not that i disagree with what everyone is saying, but the other side bears some examining as well. I am a Canadian who lives in Norway, and was there during the July terrorist attacks. One of the things that Breivik first did during his planning was to purchase a farm to be used as a cover for his bomb making plot. His reasoning was that all those explosive precursors would seem right in place on a farm as useful agricultural chemicals.
    Now, what was never made clear was if investigators had raided this place in the early stages whether anything would have looked clearly suspicious, or if it would have seemed completely inncouous.
    I wonder what the defining line between innocent and criminal intentions really looks like.

    1. The answer: Look for a mentally unstable person who is a fanatic too, with years of advocating violence and threatening it, who has met people of a similar nature. Motive. Armed with actual explosives and weapons, or in the process of making them. Means. Specially if what goes on excludes any reasonable use. It works for other crime, it works here.

      Byron Sonne is no fanatic as far as I know. However strange his activities might seem, he is innocent. He is just being persecuted because he has played the G20 security for fools.

      Car owners should not be suspected for hit and runs, nor farmers for cooking explosives. Not for people possessing things or doing things.

      You look for fanatics doing very specific things related to extremism and violence. That’s fair, respectful of all the other people and efficient.

  11. Maybe they read V for Vendetta; [SPOILERS] in the graphic novel, V escapes from the concentration camp by using fertilizer and other common chemicals to make explosives, napalm and mustard gas.

  12. I’ve did my time for jury duty, Canadian court, criminal case–ugh.

    With what little I can remember how these things work, I think Byron Sonne is in good hands.  From the article, defence lawyer Peter Copeland seems to be doing an excellent job.

    If I were Copeland, I’d drag in a rocket specialist as witness, and put great emphasis on the incompetent of the police.  Look at the photo link in the article: http://toronto.openfile.ca/toronto/slideshow/58-elderwood-what-police-found-byron-sonnes-home

    They’ve identified a thermocouple as “high tech homemade detonator”.  Looks to me more like a pen cap and a thermoprobe for a voltmeter.  It’s not high tech.  A more robust version exists in your hot water tanks and furnaces.

    From the pictures, IMO, that’s one clean, organized home made lab.  That’s alot of hexamine tablets, but not uncommon to keep that much.  Shoot, he’s busted for poking around with pee and poo( Urea and ammonium nitrate).

    I think the most damning comment from the witness is this:

    “I haven’t seen any evidence that something explosive was made,” Anderson said. “But it’s my opinion that the materials there, the kit, not just the chemicals but the materials to put them together, I can’t see any reason other than to at some point make some sort of localized explosive.” 

    1. Anderson would say that, wouldn’t he? His job, as described in the article, is to spend his time making home-made bombs.  Look through pretty much any kitchen or garden shed through those eyes, and you see some frightening things.

      1. I haven’t been following the case closely, plus this information is now third hand, plus there’s a difference between being at court and what information the media presents to the public.  With that in mind:

        Yes, Anderson has to say that.  But does this actually fall under the “possessing explosive materials” charge?  I’m not sure myself, but if does pass, I seriously have to question it.  Does this mean, every house hold in Canada would be charged with it?  I mean a hot water tank in a correct setting and environment can blow up an entire house.(Make it keep heating and let the pressure build to dangerous levels.)  Or level an entire concrete wall.

  13. This case reminds me of what happened to Bernie S. When they searched the house he rented from a dentist, they found a substance that resembled C-4. They later found out it was dental putty, but still brought it up at the trial. The officer testifying acknowledged that it was dental putty, but still found it concerning that “it could have been C-4”.

  14. Well heck, I think I could level half a block with cooking ingredients alone, but that’s bloody stupid to even try.. unless you have a bomb range and some cop friends who let you in. <.< (Mythbusters joke)

  15. If I was building a bomb I certainly wouldn’t be doing it in my house. What kind of criminal mastermind would rock the boat while leaving all the ‘evidence’ in the cupboards in his basement?

    I feel sorry for the guy. He’s being put through the wringer purely to serve as an example to others who might be thinking about messing with G20. 

    A similar thing happened in Australia in 2007 when some guys from a comedy show got through the security at an APEC meeting in a fake Canadian motorcade inside which one of the guys was dressed as Bin Laden. They had to go to court but eventually the charges were dropped because the Police had screwed up by letting them in.


    1. Especially when his house is in Forest Hill, one of the most posh neighborhoods in Toronto. He even voted for Harper, according to his police interviews. A wealthy, conservative-voting… mad bomber? Without a secret lair?

      The whole Byron Sonne prosecution just shows how the authorities can thoroughly punish people without ever getting near a courtroom – he’s lost his job, family, his home, and spent a year in jail. And now he gets to have a trial.

  16. Its only a matter of time till this madness reaches Alice in Wonderland status. When does a legitimate  household item become a precursor? Think about just salt and water. With a bit of effort you could make hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide and sodium perchlorate from just those two items. I think the only difference between sodium and potassium perchlorate in terms of an oxidising agent is that the former is hygroscopic but that’s not much of a problem. TATP  is based on acetone but that’s available in every just about hardware shop around the world. The reality is that the most benign items can be described as precursors. Aluminium or magnesium powder, use a discarded mag wheel or a window frame with a grinder and tumbler. Sulphuric acid, a couple of old car batteries. I had to smile at the reference to sodium bicarbonate. What the hell is he going to do with that, they do know its the main ingredient in dry powder fire extinguishers don’t they? In his garage he had acetone, methyl hydrate and hydrochloric acid in his garage. Yep and I have exactly the same ingredients in my garage… acetone for cleaning printed circuit boards, methyl hydrate in the radiator additive and window cleaner for my car and hydrochloric acid for cleaning the electrode plates in the swimming pool chlorinator.
    I’m a completely law abiding person who views terrorism and violence as absolutely repugnant but if this is an example of how the prosecution is presenting its case, then myself, along with most other people in my street could all be presented as threats to society.

  17. The pictures of his “lab” are hilarious. 

    The description made it sound like this guy was running some kind of mad-scientist lab with giant boiling and bubbling glassware distilling scary chemicals while laughing maniacally. 

    The reality is a small cabinet with a couple beakers, a few screw-top containers of chemicals hand labeled in permanent marker, and a pen top with a wire sticking out of it…

    I haven’t actually heard of why this man is picked up and facing trial in the first place – I suppose that’d be a good place to understand why they are digging around his cabinets. The fact that they are using that tiny cabinet of supplies to label him as a terrorist bomb builder seems insane to me. You could go into almost any garage in America and pull out enough assorted chemicals etc to claim there was “bomb precursors”. Absolutely bonkers.

    1. it would be dangerous to expose their ineptitude. He is now a pubic enemy because of their mistake.

      Where is Tuttle when we need him. 

  18. He had all the precursors to fireworks. Ohhh, look at the pretty colors! Oh soryy can’t make anything with these handcuffs.

  19. They messed up. They are just trying to cover ass, and make it seem plausible so it won’t be as embarrassing. After they lose, and he sues them, they will cut a deal for an NDA. Just look at the photographs of the confiscated “weapons” at G20… nerf toys and LARP gear. All the law enforcement that participated in that debacle should have their heads checked.

  20. I’d like to see other members of the Canadian Association of Rocketry get behind Sonne–pictures of their “labs,” letters of support, anything. Can we please stop convicting people / nations of precrimes?

  21. Why do you keep on banning me boingboing? I’d like to add my expert commentary to this post. Do you just ban anyone who vaguely disagrees with the post author?

      1. I wasn’t actually expecting that to make it through your ban filter. My response to your questions would be thus:

        A) I am me. Yo.

        B) Yes. My main points would be that K-chlorate is most definitely not an ‘ingredient in improvised explosives like TATP and HMTD’ and that to call some of those chemicals explosives precursors would be the same as calling urine or water or rain or people explosives precursors. I didn’t feel like writing this up in full if I was still under your magical ban-hammer though…  Mabye Disquis is having hiccups because I’m still using the same IP that was banned : ) Unless I’m forgiven?

        1. True. Chlorates are useful as components of Sprengel explosives (namely flash powders). HMTD and TATP are organic peroxides, where concentrated hydrogen peroxide is the precursor – nasty stuff with mind of its own.

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