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Opinion: Rail security an ongoing threat

(The following column by Fred Burton appeared at Stratfor.com on January 24.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In testimony before a U.S. Senate committee, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) official recently warned of gaps in the homeland security and transportation threat assessment program. Cathleen Berrick, the GAO's director of homeland security and justice issues, noted that despite the history of terrorist attacks against passenger rail systems -- including those in London and Mumbai -- the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has yet to complete its own risk assessment of the passenger rail system in the United States. Even more to the point, the agency has not yet even finalized a methodology for analyzing and characterizing such risks.

Though Berrick's Jan. 18 testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation was couched, for the most part, in bureaucratic language, the message was clear. Not only has the TSA not completed a threat assessment methodology, she said, but also its parent agency -- the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- has not finished efforts to come up with a framework that helps government and private-sector agencies develop a consistent approach in analyzing risks across different transportation sectors, including passenger rail. Without such a framework, she said, it might not be possible to assess and prioritize risks across sectors and allocate security resources accordingly. Berrick called for "enhanced federal leadership" in prioritizing and guiding security efforts for the nation's passenger rail system.

Her testimony appears to have touched a nerve with committee members -- including Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., whose district is situated squarely on the Washington, D.C.-New York City rail corridor. That is a corridor that many -- including Stratfor -- long have considered to be a prime target for a terrorist attack. Many of Lautenberg's constituents, like residents in other major metropolitan areas, use passenger rail for their daily commutes, and the senator has voiced frustration with what he called the "Bush administration's foot-dragging on measures to secure the nation's rail systems," despite the history of attacks against passenger rail in other countries.

There is little question that the U.S. passenger rail system is at risk. There are numerous reasons that terrorists consider rail systems to be an attractive target -- even without considering the factors that make it hard to protect in the United States: the sheer size of a rail system, daily volumes of passengers, and the patchwork of government agencies and private-sector security elements involved at different points along the way. Under such circumstances, federal leadership on security matters is key -- but in its absence, local and state agencies in many areas have decided to act independently in analyzing and attempting to counter risks.

Assessing the Risks

In analyzing the threat from al Qaeda, it long has been our opinion that the New York-D.C. corridor tops the list of rail targets in the United States. For one thing, both cities -- highly symbolic of U.S. economic and political power -- were targeted on 9/11, in a message that was intended to resonate within the Muslim world as well as among the American public. The symbolism of those cities, and the potential economic impact of a strike targeting that rail corridor, has not changed in the past five years, and neither has our risk assessment.

That said, heavily used rail systems in practically all other major U.S. metropolitan areas should be viewed as being somewhat at risk, particularly when the scope of the threat is widened to include acts by grassroots jihadists or "lone wolf" terrorists. Should al Qaeda -- if thought of as a cohesive organization with a central leadership and operational structure -- still retain the ability to command and carry out strategic strikes of the 9/11 magnitude (something we find highly doubtful at this stage), it likely would choose to strike in areas of symbolic significance that are easily recognized within the Muslim world. However, grassroots jihadists and lone wolves -- with more limited networks and resources -- tend to carry out attacks in the areas where they live, with less emphasis on symbolism or the overall political and economic impact.

Indeed, with the disruption of al Qaeda that followed 9/11 and the shift toward "grassroots" operatives, there also has been a shift toward "soft targets" -- defined as those that are difficult, if not impossible, to defend from attack. And Stratfor long has believed that the passenger rail system tops the list of soft targets in the United States.

One consideration, of course, is the sheer number of people who use the rail system on a regular basis: 11.3 million passengers, in 35 metropolitan areas and 22 states, use some form of rail transit every weekday. This number far exceeds the approximately 2 million passengers that fly commercially in the United States each day. In fact, passenger rail systems in New York City alone carry more than 4.6 million passengers every weekday -- more than twice the number of passengers who fly commercially for the entire country. Even assuming that the rail systems could accommodate the kinds of passenger screening processes and mechanisms that now are standard at U.S. airports, these numbers alone would make for serious obstacles and expenses.

But the nature of the passenger rail system itself means that airport-like screening systems are not a feasible option. After takeoff, an airliner becomes a sealed compartment, making systematic security checks at every stop -- separated by considerable distances -- a logical and viable process. Major train stations, such as Washington's Union Station or New York's Penn Station, could be physically secured in the way that airports are -- but without similar measures in place at the numerous smaller stations along the rail line, these efforts would have little meaning. The typical passenger rail train makes frequent stops -- often every few miles or city blocks -and the passenger mix is in constant flux.

This has implications not only for screening procedures, but also for the physical protection of passengers on the train itself. Due to heavy volumes -- especially during rush hour, and especially on subways -- passengers often are packed tightly into rail cars or end up standing in the aisle. That's very different from planes, with passengers seated through the majority of the flight. Thus, even if a "train marshal" or police officer were assigned to every rail car, it would be difficult to see -- let alone protect -- the majority of passengers. One simply cannot shoot or subdue a suspect when separated by 30 tightly packed bodies, without clear aisles or an unimpeded line of sight.

Finally, there are the administrative issues involved in securing rail lines -- which cross through numerous federal, state and local jurisdictions. In situations that make physical security measures difficult or impossible to pursue, thoughtful intelligence work often can help to mitigate various threats. However, where numerous agencies and jurisdictions are involved, the potential for problems in security and intelligence-sharing is high. Successful dissemination of information among law enforcement agencies can substantially improve their chances of detecting and interdicting terrorist threats, but as we have seen repeatedly, communication between federal agencies, and from them to state and local authorities and back up the chain, is difficult at best.

Targeting Considerations

These are the knotty problems with which government agencies and others charged with securing the public's safety have been wrestling, and which might explain in part the federal government's delay in coming up with a framework to address the issues.

From a terrorist's perspective, however, the situation is much simpler.

From this standpoint, subway and commuter trains are desirable targets not only because they are difficult to secure, but also because they provide a dense concentration of potential victims, neatly packaged in a small metal box. This means that even a small improvised explosive device (IED) can cause mass casualties. When that metal box is placed inside a concrete tunnel, the confined space can further amplify the blast effects of the IED, resulting in maximum "bang for the buck." Moreover, there are chances of follow-on casualties as the tunnel fills with smoke and fire, causing confusion and panic among the surviving passengers. This often results in people being trampled or injured by smoke inhalation. Thus, an attack on a subway or commuter-rail car can result in a higher body count than an attack using the same IED against a crowd in another setting.

This mentality helps to explain why terrorists have shown such a penchant for targeting passenger rail systems. In recent years, there have been numerous successful strikes -- in London, Madrid, Moscow and Mumbai -- as well as several thwarted plots that involved the New York subway system. Among the disrupted attack plots were the 1997 case involving Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer and Lafi Khalil, who were arrested in the early hours of the day on which they had planned to execute their suicide attack, and the 2004 plan by Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay to place explosives in the 34th Street subway station in Manhattan. More recently, authorities announced that a plot to detonate IEDs in two commuter rail tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey was thwarted in July 2006.

The history of successful attacks amplifies the risk to the rail system: Al Qaeda and associated jihadist operatives have displayed a tendency to return to the same types of targets and locations they have struck -- or attempted to strike -- in the past. This was clear in the two attacks against the World Trade Center, as well as in the USS Cole strike in October 2000, which followed a failed attempt to strike the USS The Sullivans nine months earlier. Moreover, al Qaeda historically has shown a tendency to fixate on specific modes of operation and target sets, such as aviation. Operatives affiliated with the core al Qaeda leadership are known to have gathered targeting intelligence concerning the rail systems in New York and Washington, D.C.; this, when combined with the number of successful and disrupted attacks targeting subways and commuter rail, points toward an al Qaeda fixation on commuter rail targets.

It would be imprudent, however, to view the primary threat to rail systems as emanating from a core al Qaeda group. Grassroots jihadist cells possess the reach and means to strike at passenger rail lines -- and because such attacks have produced considerable mayhem, carnage and press coverage in the past, they provide a model that aspiring jihadists could attempt to follow. Moreover, a rail strike need not be highly sophisticated or carried out by a large group; "lone wolf" militants are very much within the realm of possible actors.

All of these factors, taken together, indicate that jihadists will continue to view passenger rail targets with interest, and that -- given the vulnerabilities -- efforts to carry out an attack in the United States will continue.

Think Globally, Act Locally

None of this is intended to say that U.S. passenger rail systems are completely devoid of protection, of course. While the degree of vulnerability is high, and the level of federal guidance -- at least according to Berrick -- is quite low, efforts have been and continue to be made at numerous levels to provide what security is possible.

Given the difficulties of erecting physical security mechanisms for passenger rail systems, the emphasis falls to intelligence and threat assessment -- along with a good dose of common sense -- in guiding the allocation of security resources and funds. Without comprehensive coordination from the TSA or DHS, many state and local police departments have acted independently in assessing the threats in their jurisdictions and implementing their own security countermeasures.

Armed with a map of the mass transit system, it is possible for a thoughtful person to determine, relatively quickly, which rail systems make the most desirable targets from a terrorist perspective, and to list a handful of lines and stops along these lines that would be prime targets. The police departments with responsibility to secure the systems that would make the most desirable targets -- such as the Metropolitan Police and the Metro Transit Police in Washington, D.C., the NYPD and the Port Authority Police in New York, the Sheriff's Office and LAPD in Los Angeles, and others have created their own intelligence and threat assessment units and have developed systems for sharing intelligence directly with other police agencies, outside of the federal system.

In addition to the liaisons that have been established with their counterparts in the United States, some of the largest police departments in the country also have established international liaison units in order to collect intelligence actively on rail attacks like those in London, Madrid and Mumbai. These intelligence networks -- created specifically to compensate for the lack of information flow from the federal government -- allow police to study the tactics used and to incorporate lessons learned from the foreign attacks directly into their own rail security programs. At the local level, police departments in cities like New York and Washington also have stepped up patrol coverage of rail systems -- along with implementing random baggage searches and deploying SWAT, canine and undercover units -- in response to perceived threats.

Clearly, not all security agencies or police departments have the resources to take such steps, and calls for harmonization and resource allocation at the federal level are certainly logical. However, law enforcement agencies that have been able to bridge the gap in the absence of a clear federal security framework would not necessarily have incentives to change their ways in the event that the leadership Berrick recently called for should emerge. In all likelihood, a patchwork system for rail security -- with the variations in safety and vulnerability that implies -- will continue to exist.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

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