Almost exactly one year ago, it was revealed in the mainstream media that among the information gleaned from the so-called “treasure trove” of intelligence gathered at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, was evidence that al Qaeda had hoped to attack the United States rail system on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.
“The information on plotting against the U.S. rail sector indicated one possible tactic for attacking a train was trying to tip it somehow off its tracks,” said one Reuters report last year.
While the anniversary passed without any such incident, this news served as a reminder of the potential dangers our rail networks face from terrorist attacks. Fortunately, organizers of Operation RAIL SAFE (short for “Regional Alliance Including Local, State and Federal Efforts”) needed no such reminder — they’ve been working on the problem for several years.
It’s sometimes a useful endeavor to think using the brain of a terrorist — Kevin Gors of SEAL-MAR did a daylong session at ILEETA 2011 demonstrating why.
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Defining the Problem
Before we go into the threats our rail systems face — and the RAIL SAFE training exercise designed to address the issue — let’s first review the definition of terrorism. The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms defines terrorism as:
“The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”
Remember, terrorism is a tactic — not a group of people or a belief system. It is not unique to radicalized Islamist militants like AQAP or al-Shabaab. In fact, terrorism has history that goes back to Genghis Kahn.
It’s the tactic we need to concern ourselves with, not the political objective of the tacticians.
Operation RAIL SAFE
The tactic of terror is top of mind for the organizers of Operation RAIL SAFE, a preparedness training initiative which will involve a slew of law enforcement agencies conducting a massive, multi-jurisdictional law enforcement exercise on June 29.
One of those agencies could be yours — if you want to get your agency involved in the exercise, you can contact the Amtrak Police Department via email by clicking here or you can gather more information about Operation RAIL SAFE by clicking here.
Organizers have issued an “open invitation for new (and current) agencies to participate” this year. Though these exercises are typically unannounced publicly, the organizers sent me an email last week in an effort to get the word out through industry publications such as PoliceOne. I’m delighted to help spread the word a little bit.
Operation RAIL SAFE was developed by the Amtrak Police Department, New York City Police Department and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The program has been expanded from the initial exercise that occurred in May 2010 — which included 22 agencies in eight states — to about 190 agencies in 38 states this year.
During Operation RAIL SAFE, Amtrak Police, TSA personnel, and other law enforcement officers from federal, state, tribal, local, rail and transit police agencies across the United States and Canada will “deploy at passenger rail and transit stations, and along the right-of-way to exercise counterterrorism and incident response capabilities.”
Activities will include increased security presence onboard trains, explosives detection K-9 sweeps, random passenger screening, and counter-surveillance to enhance protection of our nation’s rail and transit systems.
“Our approach to providing security for our passengers is one of prevention, partnership, and participation,” said Amtrak Vice President & Chief of Police John J. O’Connor in a written statement. “We ask that agencies across the United States and Canada work with us in protecting the rail system. You are not just protecting the train passengers; you are protecting the people from your own communities who use those trains.”
And there are a lot of passengers to protect.
Attacks on Passengers Systems
According to a 2007 report authored by Eben Kaplan of the Council on Foreign Relations, Americans make more than 3.5 billion trips on intercity trains, commuter rails, and subways every year.
“On a given day in New York City,” Kaplan wrote, “more people pass through Penn Station than all three major airports servicing the region combined.”
Even more troubling — at least to me — is the commercial rail freight system. I’ll get into that in a wee bit, but first let’s look at the obvious: Passenger trains as targets.
Historically speaking, the American railroad has been the target of outlaws dating back to the Wild West, but for the most part, one must look overseas to for examples of relatively recent attacks. And one needn’t look hard. In the past several decades, rail systems in cities all over the world have been favored targets of terrorists whose agendas are as varied as the locations of their attacks.
In March 1995, members of the terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo used a series of five coordinated attacks on the Tokyo subway, using Sarin gas to kill at least 12 people and injure 50 more.
Fast forward nine years to March 2004 — three days before the general election in Spain — and we have the incident known in that nation as 11-M. In nearly-simultaneous explosions on the Madrid rail system, at least 191 people were killed and another 1,800 wounded. Debate still rages in some quarters there whether the perpetrators were the Basque separatist group ETA or some al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist group. Regardless, the incumbent Aznar administration lost the election.
In July 2005 — in an incident known in England as the 7/7 attacks — three of the four explosions which shook London occurred in the fabled London Underground system. One year later, in July 2006, at least 174 people were killed and more than 450 were injured in a series of explosions on commuter trains and in train stations in Mumbai.
A handful of attempted attacks here in the United States have been thwarted. A would-be bomber named Najibullah Zazi was arrested before an attempt to hit New York City subway system in 2009, and another named Farooque Ahmed wanted to attack the Washington Metro in 2010. Both attempts were failures, but that doesn’t mean the opposition isn’t contemplating other attempts at this type of attack.
They are. And you should be too. Another thing you may consider contemplating is the commercial rail freight system.
Commercial Rail Freight
I often ask myself the question, “What would I do if I was a terrorist planning an attack on [fill in the blank]?” Quite often, I find my answers to be somewhat outside of the obvious, and when I contemplate the rail systems I think of how seemingly easy it would be to disrupt the commercial rail system.
“Much of the 160,000 miles of railroad track in the United States transports freight, including highly toxic chemicals,” stated Kaplan of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Those chemical cars just seem way, way too easy a target. I shudder at the thought, but I also know that if I’ve had the thought, the opposition has had it as well.
Another “worst of the worst” scenario is to dismantle the U.S. economy by attacking the freight rail system.
“How would you do that?” you ask?
According to a report issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers, nearly half of all intercity commercial freight in the United States travels via rail, “including ...70 percent of coal delivered to power plants.”
Disrupting the movement of coal via rail would effectively be like hitting a “slow-motion off switch” for a significant number of coal-burning energy facilities.
Want another example of the problem?
Nearly every major retailer — and most manufacturers, for that matter — relies upon a “just-in-time” supply-chain logistics model in which the Conex box is the primary mode of transportation for most consumer retail goods.
Upon arrival at our maritime ports, these so-called “intermodal containers” are plopped onto flatbed trains (and trucks) for delivery nationwide. Furthermore, 70 percent of domestically-manufactured automobiles are transported to their dealerships via intermodal — train to truck — transport.
Okay, with those facts established, contemplate the following. While there are nearly 600,000 bridges in the United States, very few of them support railway lines crossing the Mississippi River. There is only one major east-west freight rail route along the nation’s northern tier (from Duluth, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington). There is only one major east-west freight rail route along the border with Mexico (from Houston, Texas to Los Angeles, California).
Use your imagination. I’ll leave it at that.
As was reinforced in me — so very well, I should add — during Kevin Gors’ outstanding session at ILEETA a couple years ago, you have to let your mind go into the deepest, darkest hole of pure evil in order to truly imagine those “worst of the worst” plans the opposition might dream up.
First, know yourself. Then, know your enemy. This way, you can enter one hundred battles, and not be truly imperiled.
About the author
Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. In addition to his editorial and managerial responsibilities, Doug has authored more than 700 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), and an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association. He is also a member of the Public Safety Writers Association, and is a two-time (2011 and 2012) Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" Finalist in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.
Read more articles by PoliceOne Editor in Chief Doug Wyllie by clicking here.