It could happen here tomorrow

Charles Faddis Contributor
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Early morning on March 29, 2010, two female suicide bombers detonated the explosive devices they were carrying on subway trains in Moscow. Initial reports indicate that 37 individuals were killed and that 73 were injured. These attacks, likely the work of Chechen separatists, produced panic amongst passengers, disrupted service on Moscow’s massive subway system and brought a flood of police and special forces personnel out into the streets of the city.

It could happen here tomorrow.

Attacks on passenger railway systems are nothing new. In 2004 a series of coordinated attacks on the commuter railway in Madrid killed 191 and left over 1500 wounded. In 2005 bombings of the London underground left 56 dead and 700 injured. Attacks on railway cars in Mumbai on July 11, 2006, killed 209 and left at least 700 injured. This is not an exhaustive list. Numerous other similar attacks have occurred as well.

A terrorist interest in mounting an attack on rail systems in the United States, particularly those in the New York metro area, is well known. Numerous reports over the years have shown a continuing desire to hit systems such as the PATH trains between New Jersey and New York City and the New York City subway system itself. The recent arrest of Najibullah Zazi and his co-conspirators is simply the latest evidence that al-Qaida continues to harbor a desire to mount such operations.

Despite all of this evidence compiled over a period of years and despite the continuing use of attacks on passenger rail systems as a terrorist tactic, there is virtually no security in place on any rail system anywhere in the United States that would stop a competent terrorist organization from mounting an attack and causing significant casualties tomorrow. We remain, in effect, wide open to this kind of attack.

In the course of doing the research for my latest book, I spent the better part of a year taking a street level look at security on rail systems from the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) in suburban Virginia to Amtrak to the New York City subway system itself. What I found was, outside of some limited cases in New York City itself, almost a total absence of any meaningful security measures.

On the VRE and Maryland Area Rail Commuter (MARC) system, its corresponding Maryland suburban commuting railroad, there were no sightings ever of any railway security personnel. There were no ID checks, there were no bag checks. No explosive sniffing dogs were in use. No metal detectors were ever employed.

The only security measure ever noted on either railway was an automated message advising that if passengers saw someone leave something on the train they should ask them if it was their package, and, if they said not, the matter should be reported to the conductor. The implication was that this was some sort of anti-littering campaign vice a security advisory.

Both these railway systems service the nation’s capital. Both run into Union Station, which is the second busiest passenger rail terminal in the United States.

The situation on Amtrak was essentially a carbon copy of what I had found on VRE and MARC. In the entire time that I was compiling data there was exactly one sighting of an AMTRAK security official, and that individual was making no effort to screen either passengers or bags.

Only in New York City was security seen with any frequency. Here there were occasional sightings of security personnel, bomb sniffing dogs and technical gear for the screening of bags. Even here, though, such security measures were rare, probably too rare to have a significant deterrent effect on terrorists planning an attack

It does not take much of an imagination to see the enormity of the damage that a well-executed attack could cause. There were ten separate devices detonated, more or less simultaneously, in Madrid. Six different trains were hit. Think about what an attack like that would mean if carried out around 7 a.m. and centered on trains in the vicinity of Penn Station in New York City. The body count would be staggering. The economic cost would run to the billions.

How is this possible? How can we have created a new cabinet-level bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security, with a budget of $50.5 billion, and still, eight years after 9/11 and six years after Madrid do nothing of consequence to defend ourselves? Are we really doomed to do nothing but put in place security measures against attacks that have already happened on our soil? In the entire massive homeland security and counterterrorism structure that we have created post 9/11, is there no one with the capacity to think a step ahead?

Let’s hope there is. And let’s hope they do something before we suffer the fate of Madrid, London, Mumbai and now Moscow.

Charles Faddis served 20 years in the Central Intelligence Agency as an operations officer, holding positions as a department chief at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Washington, D.C., and as a chief of station in the Middle East. He is the author of the new book “Willful Neglect.