The Vulnerability of the Passenger Rail Systems
By Fred Burton
The FBI has ratcheted up its counterterrorism intelligence collection efforts as the U.S. presidential elections draw nearer, and both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security remain highly concerned that an attack could come at anytime.
Nevertheless, the United States still has many "soft targets" that are difficult or impossible to adequately protect against a militant strike -- and the nation's passenger rail system tops the list. In such an environment, a "Madrid-style" attack is entirely possible, whether involving improvised explosive devices hidden in a suitcase or satchel, a suicide bombing or even a biological/chemical attack using agents -- such as sarin gas or anthrax -- released inside a passenger rail car.
The security necessary to prevent such a strike would cause the passenger rail system to all but grind to a halt. Securing the rail lines is much more problematic than securing air travel because of the sheer volume of travelers and stops. The Sept. 11 hijackers exploited weaknesses within the nation's air-passenger screening system to carry out a well-orchestrated attack -- but nothing as elaborate as the Sept. 11 strikes is required for a highly effective, mass-casualty assault against the country's rail systems.
This threat is particularly relevant in the Washington-to-New York City corridor -- which counterterrorism officials refer to as "the X", or target zone. An attack within those cities proper could lead to massive casualties: On average, some 4.5 million passengers use New York City's trains and subways every weekday, as do 550,000 passengers in Washington.
Local officials are not completely blind to this threat, but they are not adequately equipped to defend against it either.
For example, the New York City Police Department -- which has a long history of fighting terrorism and has conducted more planning than any other major metropolitan police department for the possibility of another attack -- currently is on heightened terror alert. The NYPD is putting forth a visible show of manpower on the streets and fielding extra uniformed police around the exterior entrances to subways. Undercover officers also are deployed underground, as a further step to thwart attacks. However, inside New York's Penn Station rail hub, the police presence is smaller, in marked contrast to the show of force of force outside.
Though the NYPD has made a tactical decision about where to deploy its forces -- visibly and otherwise -- this likely does more to combat low-level street crime and provide psychological comfort to travelers and tourists than it would to deter an actual terrorist attack. All of al Qaeda's major attacks, including the African Embassy bombings, the attack against the USS Cole and bombing plots in New York City, have shown that the group factors visible police and security staff into their attack plans -- and into the overall casualty count of a strike. If militants opted for gunfire, a single officer with a pistol likely would be killed without gaining a chance to return fire. If bombs were to be placed on trains, the presence of police would be meaningless.
If an attack were to take place on a train or inside a terminal, likely scenarios include a "spray and pray" strike -- in which a suicide bomber sprays a crowd with gunfire before detonating his own explosives to maximize casualty counts -- placing improvised explosive devices on trains or releasing a deadly gas or chemical inside a passenger car. Any of these would be quite easy to carry out within the current security environment: Nearly three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, no passenger or baggage screening systems are in place at Penn Station, or in Union Station or the subways in Washington. This is a serious concern.
In fact, STRATFOR sources within the U.S. counterterrorism community are puzzled why an attack against a passenger rail system has not already occurred, in light of these factors. An attack involving a crowded passenger train could kill scores of people and have economic effects that might rival those of the Sept. 11 strikes -- for example, leading to a rail system shutdown and keeping thousands or millions of commuters from their jobs. Moreover, any strike need not be highly sophisticated or carried out by a large group: A lone militant could carry out such a plan, as seen in a lone Islamist gunman's attack against the El Al terminal at Los Angeles Airport in 2002 or the killings by Mir Aimal Kansi at the front gate of the CIA in 1993.
STRATFOR believes that Washington remains firmly atop al Qaeda's target list. The capital city's Union Station and Metro subways are under heightened threat, but security there is less substantial than on the rail systems of New York City -- something that makes no sense from a threat assessment perspective. In New York, bomb dogs and SWAT teams with submachine guns are deployed at key locations, such as the World Trade Center site. Standoff weapons would allow officer to at least return adequate fire in the event of a commando-style attack, and possibly save lives. However, in Washington there are no visible bomb dogs or police officers with standoff shoulder weapons.
That said, there are a few concrete steps rail travelers can take for protection:
- Buy a flashlight and smoke hood for the daily commute.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Remain mentally prepared for an attack and walk through escape plans in your mind.
At the government level, aggressive threat information collection efforts -- coupled with passenger and baggage screening efforts -- are vital to prevent an attack involving the passenger rail systems. Police and Emergency Medical System response plans also play an important role. However, the practical steps involved in screening millions of passengers daily -- in a timely manner -- is simply not doable. Thus, the nation's rail systems remain a serious vulnerability, and are likely to be the next militant target inside the United States.