Sodium Hydroxide (which is the active ingredient in many drain cleaners, including Drano (Drano MSDS Here)) does indeed react fairly violently with aluminium to produce Hydrogen gas.
2 Al + 2 NaOH + 2 H2O → 2 NaAlO2 + 3 H2
The Sodium Hydroxide breaks down the passivation layer that naturally forms on the surface of aluminium due to it's reaction with atmospheric oxygen. It's my understanding that:
- The Sodium Hydroxide dissolves the passivation, which allows the H2 to come in direct contact with the Aluminium metal.
- The Aluminium is then oxidized by the O2 from the water molecules, which liberates they hydrogen as a gas.
- You end up with a lot of heat, hydrogen gas, and aluminium hydroxide.
I do not know if it has been used maliciously as described, though.
To clarify, in the configuration used in the "prank" (vandalism?) described in the OP:
The aluminium and sodium hydroxide are not mixed initially inside the bottle.
Basically, there is some sodium hydroxide solution in the bottom of the bottle, and the aluminium foil piece is hung/balanced above the solution in a manner where jostling/tipping the bottle will cause it to fall into the sodium hydroxide.
Therefore, the reaction is triggered by the bottle being moved, and it could (theoretically) sit for a significant amount of time before being triggered.
My chemistry vocabulary is really rusty. Corrections welcome!