Feds warn about terrorists buying fireworks

10:03 AM, Jun 29, 2013   |    comments
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By: Donna Leinwand, USA Today

As the frenzy for fireworks peaks in the run up to Independence Day, a federal task force is warning fireworks retailers to keep watch for suspicious purchasers.

The National Explosives Task Force issued an industry advisory Thursday warning that consumer fireworks are a "common component used in Improvised Explosive Devices." It advised retailers to look for possible signs of suspicious activity, including customers who ask about how to take apart or modify the fireworks or who seek to purchase commercial-grade fireworks.

The advisory comes in the wake of the Boston Marathon bomb that killed three people and injured 264 on April 15. In an indictment made public Thursday, a grand jury charged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with detonating bombs made from pressure cookers, low explosive powder and shrapnel at the marathon. The indictment says his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, purchased 48 mortars containing eight pounds of low explosive powder from Phantom Fireworks, a retail store in Seabrook, N.H., on Feb. 6.

This is the second time a terrorist has used fireworks in a terror plot. Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, who confessed to a failed attempt to bomb Times Square on May 1, 2010, purchased fireworks from a Phantom store in Matamoros, Pa.

But the use of fireworks for nefarious acts has not dampened demand among consumers or prompted backlash from state or federal regulators. Last year, consumers purchased more than 185 million pounds of fireworks, data compiled from the U.s. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission show.

All but four states - Delaware, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey - allow the sale of some types of fireworks or sparklers. No state has tightened restrictions on fireworks since the bombing, says Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group based in Bethesda, Md.

Now is peak fireworks season with 90% of everyday consumer pyrotechnics sold between April 15 to July 15, Heckman says.

"I think most Americans realize that bad things can be made out of many common materials," Heckman said.

Consumer fireworks individually do not mass detonate because they contain low levels of explosive mixed with other chemicals to make the firework colorful, says Phantom CEO Bruce Zoldan. Tsarnaev, using a technique recommended by al Qaeda, appears to have cut open the pyrotechnics to remove the powder and put it in the pressure cooker, Zoldan said.

"It's possible to get enough powder together to do something, but there are easier ways to do that," Zoldan said.

The industry, which is tightly regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Department of Transportation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and state authorities, is willing to work on ways to prevent products from being used improperly or assist law enforcement when needed, Zoldan said.

Phantom Fireworks maintains a database of customers for marketing so the company was able to identify Tsarnaev's purchase, Zoldan said.

"I think the industry will have to gather together and come up with something that will protect the industry's interests by working hand in hand with Homeland Security," he said. "If we're selling a product that's capable of being dissected, then we as an industry will have to get together to do what's right."

The industry has taken such steps before, he said. Decades ago, the industry created and funded the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory to safety test products to prevent fireworks-related injuries, he said.

"Now we need to make a proactive effort to help monitor individuals who might come in to buy fireworks for not honorable reasons," Zoldan said. "We help Americans celebrate America's birthday. We're not going to let criminals ruin that."

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