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5 May 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:21am

Is a petrol bomb a weapon of mass destruction?

One of the charges against the man accused of planting the New York car bomb is “attempted use of a

By Samira Shackle

I was slightly confused to read that among the charges faced by Faisal Shahzad, the man accused of planting the car bomb in Times Square, New York, was “attempting use of a weapon of mass destruction”.

Wikipedia offers this definition:

A weapon of mass destruction (WMD) is a weapon that can kill large numbers of humans (and other life forms) and/or cause great damage to man-made structures (eg, buildings), natural structures (eg, mountains), or the biosphere in general. The scope and application of the term has evolved and been disputed, often signifying more politically than technically. Coined in reference to aerial bombing with chemical explosives, it has come to distinguish large-scale weaponry of other technologies, such as chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear. This differentiates the term from more technical ones such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons.

Here’s what some prominent figures in New York had to say about the scale of the attack.

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The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who noted that the bomb “looked amateurish”, added:

We avoided what could have been a very deadly event. It certainly could have exploded and had a pretty big fire and a decent amount of explosive impact.

The New York police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, said that the explosives could have caused huge damage to a block of Broadway theatres and restaurants, speculating:

I think the intent was to cause a significant ball of fire.

Paul J Browne, the police department’s chief spokesman, said:

[There] would have been, in all likelihood, a good possibility of people being killed, windows shattered, but not resulting in a building collapse.

Attempted act of terrorism (also one of the charges)? Yes. It was possibly an act with international links, and it could have caused a devastating and inexcusable loss of life.

But does a petrol bomb really qualify as a weapon of mass destruction? And if so, when did the definition change?

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