US & Canada

Q&A: Pressure cooker bombs

An investigator holds up a twisted piece of metal said to have been used in the Boston bombing, 16 April
Image caption Twisted metal recovered at the Boston bomb scene suggests the use of a pressure cooker bomb

Early investigations into the deadly attack on the Boston Marathon suggest that the two bombs were placed in pressure cookers.

The vessel has long been favoured by bomb-makers in Afghanistan because it can be rigged into a cheap but murderously effective anti-personnel device.

What are the advantages of a pressure cooker for a bomber?

Basically a tightly sealed kitchen pot, the pressure cooker by its very nature increases the force of the blast, and can be packed with shrapnel such as ball bearings and nails. It is also less conspicuous than pipe bombs in regions where it is commonly used in the kitchen, such as South Asia.

How common is its use as a bomb?

According to US government guidance for security officials in 2004: "A technique commonly taught in Afghan terrorist training camps is the use/conversion of pressure cookers into IEDs [improvised explosive devices]". An update in 2010 records that pressure cooker bombs have been frequently used in Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

Pressure cooker bombs

Image caption Pressure cookers are cheap and easy to buy. Details of a pressure cooker bomb were once published in an online al-Qaeda magazine. It was one of three devices used in the 2010 attempted Times Square attack.
Image caption The US Dept of Homeland Security has issued two previous warnings about the dangers of pressure cooker bombs. The cooker is a tightly-sealed pot, which can increase the force of the blast when packed with explosives.
Image caption The explosion can be triggered using a simple device like a digital watch or mobile phone.
Image caption The Boston explosions contained metal shards, nails and other types of shrapnel, designed to cause maximum injury. Many of those wounded in the Boston attack suffered lower leg injuries and shrapnel wounds.

Who do the bombers target with such devices?

Taliban bombers in Afghanistan have placed pressure cooker bombs along paths expected to be used by US troops on foot patrol, the US defence news website Defensetech says. One of the deadliest attacks outside Afghanistan occurred in Mumbai in 2006, when seven pressure cooker bombs tore through trains in the Indian city, killing at least 186 people and injuring 700. Timers had been attached to the bombs, which were put into bags and concealed with newspapers and umbrellas.

Were pressure cooker bombs used in the US before Boston?

A pressure cooker was used in one of the bombs found after the failed Times Square bombing in New York in May 2010, according to the US government guidance from the same year. It added that because the cookers were less common in the US, their presence "in an unusual location such as a building lobby or busy street corner should be treated as suspicious". A much earlier attack featuring a pressure cooker bomb in New York was in 1976, when Croat nationalist militants planted one in a locker at Grand Central Station. It exploded as an attempt was made to defuse it and a policeman was killed.

What do we know about the Boston bombs specifically?

Investigators believe they consisted of explosives put in ordinary 1.6-gallon (6-litre) pressure cookers, one with shards of metal and ball bearings, the other with nails, a source close to the investigation told the Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity. Stuffed into black duffel bags, the bombs were then left on the ground. They exploded within about 10 seconds of each other.

Are pressure cooker bombs associated with particular militant groups?

Gordon Corera, the BBC's security correspondent, is sceptical. This type of bomb is relatively easy to construct without much bomb-making skill or experience, which makes it possible for a lone wolf actor to have built it, he says. With no need to get hold of high explosives, it also makes it easier to do so without being spotted. Publications linked to al-Qaeda have put out "do it yourself" instructions on how to make such bombs, but that does not necessarily mean it has to be someone associated with that ideology who was behind the Boston attacks.