NanoBombers: A Look at the Terrorist Group That’s Trying to Kill Scientists

Apr 09, 2014 at 8:22 AM ET

The anti-tech movement is heating up: In December, a hooded group in San Francisco smashed the windows of a Google bus. A couple of months later, they picketed outside a techie awards show. Over the weekend, another group invaded the wealthy neighborhood of a well-known venture capitalist.

But all of that is child’s play next to the tactics of ITS, a little-known terrorist organization based in Mexico. Since 2010, the group, whose full name is Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje (Individuals Tending to Savagery), has been attacking nanotechnologists and biotechnologists around the world.

In August 2011, the group sent a shoe-box-size package to a computer scientist in Monterrey stating he had won an award. He opened the package in front of a colleague, and a pipe bomb exploded, severely injuring the two men. A few months later, in December 2011, the group delivered another package containing gunpowder to a technical school in Pachuca. The bomb blew up in a teacher’s hand, causing severe burns.

Carlos Olguin, the head of engineering and nanotechnology at the Polytechnic University of the Valley of Mexico in Tultitlán, has been targeted twice by bombs, but both were delivered to the wrong person. (One of the bombs exploded on a security guard—seriously injuring him.) ITS even recently claimed that it was responsible for the death of a scientist shot in the head outside his car March 2013, though no convictions have been made.

Why is ITS trying to blow people up? Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating tiny bits of matter to take advantage of its enhanced properties, whether its higher strength or lighter weight. Scientists are now able to manipulate atoms to behave a certain way, which has implications for everything from stealth fighter jets to bioengineered food. For stealth jet fighters, for instance, nanotechnologists have figured out new ways to make molecules bend light to hide physical objects.

ITS believes messing with atoms and molecules is potentially destructive to society. A pure society, they maintain, is based on concepts of “the wild.” Nanotechnology, as they point out in one of their manifestos, “consists in the total study, the scrutiny and the manipulation and domination of all the smallest elements, invisible to human eyes.”

They seem particularly fixated on the concept of “grey goo,” a theory devised by a nanotechnologist in the mid-1980s arguing that self-replicating nanobots will replicate and replicate and replicate until all the world’s biological materials are used up and humans die. It’s a theory that has long been espoused by conspiracy theorists and sci-fi enthusiasts. It’s also been pretty much universally rejected by the mainstream scientific community.

But that hasn’t stopped ITS. After going quiet for about a year, the group has popped up again, releasing a new dispatch online last month. The 2,700-word manifesto, written in Spanish, begins with a quote from Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and claims responsibility for several more previously unreported attacks.

According to its author, who remains nameless, ITS sent a parcel bomb addressed to Lagunes Alejandra Soto, the former director of Google Mexico, in September 2013. The same month, they claim to have sent an explosive package to an employee of the Federal Electricity Commission in Mexico, Guillermo Turrent Schnaas.

One particularly heated portion of the recent communiqué details ITS’ hatred of anything or anyone that uses technology. They write:

“We employed direct attacks to damage both physically and psychologically, NOT only experts in nanotechnology, but also scholars in biotechnology, physics, neuroscience, genetic engineering, communication science, computing, robotics, etc. …We reject technology and civilization. …We deny life imposed on us by the system that dictates that we must walk as mindless, obligatorily obeying orders from large organizations…and we cling to our past as Warriors of the Earth.”

The group also quotes Albert Einstein, saying, “All our putative technological advances are like an ax in the hands of a madman.”

Even in academic circles, there’s been a healthy amount of discussion around the ethics of how to use—and not use—this technology. But ITS isn’t interested in academic dialogue. The U.S.-based Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, which documents anarchist groups, now calls ITS a “violent fringe group with anarcho-primitivist views.” They add: “ITS sees technology and civilization as essentially doomed and leading humanity to an ecological catastrophe.”

In a fascinating profile by Nature magazine, published in August 2012, author Leigh Philips describes how officials at one university have beefed up their on-campus security measures because of ITS, including taller fences and random bag checks. “Some researchers are anxious for their own safety; some are furious about being targets,” Philips writes.