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!)