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Spanish rail attack serves notice to U.S.

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Curt Anderson on March 13.)

WASHINGTON -- Despite security upgrades, new surveillance systems and tightened explosives regulations, America remains vulnerable to a terrorist attack like the deadly bombings on Spanish trains, U.S. officials and terrorism experts said Friday.

The simplicity of the timed backpack bombs placed on Spanish commuter trains demonstrates that such an attack can be carried out, they said.

"We can't stop terrorism. All we can do is reduce the risks to levels that people can accept," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Homeland security and law enforcement officials said they have no specific intelligence indicating terrorists are planning a similar attack in the United States. But as recently as Jan. 28, the FBI (news - web sites) issued a bulletin to state and local law enforcement officials describing "a continued terrorist interest" in striking American rail systems.

Such an attack, the FBI bulletin said, "could cause substantial loss of life" and have an "impact on public confidence resulting in massive economic loss."

During the Afghanistan (news - web sites) war, U.S. forces found al-Qaida photographs of U.S. railroad engines, cars and crossings. Al-Qaida prisoners have told interrogators that terrorists might try to take out bridges, remove sections of track or damage train engines to cause derailments.

"We do know that al-Qaida looks to hit us, hit us hard, and that mass transit is something they've consistently referenced." said Asa Hutchinson, border and transportation security chief at the Homeland Security Department.

The agency issued a new bulletin about railroad threats after the attacks in Spain, urging greater vigilance, especially concerning unattended bags and backpacks. Amtrak increased patrols of its police force and intensified electronic surveillance of bridges and tunnels, spokesman Dan Stessel said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, freight railroads have implemented numerous new security measures, including increased random inspections, a 24-hour operations center to coordinate security and increased tracking of trains carrying hazardous materials and munitions.

Yet all the extra bulletins and security measures would probably not stop a determined terrorist armed with a small but powerful bomb, experts said. There is far less examination of baggage on the nation's passenger rails than on aircraft and more frequent stops where passengers can get on and off with little notice.

"Look at the size of the backpacks people carry around," said Greg Baur, former director of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators.

Al-Qaida's signature tactic of near-simultaneous attacks could be copied by others, Baur said. "That's just timers," he said.

The government has taken steps to reduce the availability of high explosives. Prior to May 24, 2003, anyone could purchase explosives from a dealer without a background check or permit, provided the buyer resided in the same state.

Now, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is enforcing a new law that requires detailed background checks of up to 90 days for explosives purchasers. The ATF also investigates every reported theft of explosives, and there are new rules regarding storage and security.

"It is extremely difficult now to get your hands on explosives. Is it impossible? Nothing is impossible. But it's certainly much more difficult," said Audrey Stucko, ATF Safe Explosives Act implementation director.

That might stop terrorists from easily getting dynamite, TNT or other commercial explosives used in mining, construction, farming and the like. But the regulations do not cover other common items that can be used to make bombs.

The FBI has issued several warnings since the Sept. 11 attacks about the possibility al-Qaida might mount attacks using improvised devices. Although they are less powerful than the high-end kind, they are capable of causing a great deal of damage in an enclosed area such as a train car, experts said.

"An open society is just that, and it is a vulnerable society as well," Cordesman said. "There are going to be these cases where the terrorists succeed."

Monday, March 15, 2004

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