Justice Department officials announced Wednesday the arrest of a naturalized US citizen who allegedly plotted to plant explosives in subway rail stations in the Washington DC Metro system.
The suspect–Farooque Ahmed, 34, of Ashburn, Va.–met with authorities posing as members of al Qaeda several times from April to October to supply them with information on target rail stations, according to charges against him.
Ahmed, a naturalized US citizen born in Pakistan, was indicted on three charges and arraigned in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday afternoon. His charges include "attempting to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization, collecting information to assist in planning a terrorist attack on a transit facility, and attempting to provide material support to help carry out multiple bombings to cause mass casualties at DC-area Metrorail stations," the Justice Department announced. He faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Officials stressed that Metrorail riders were never in any danger during the undercover operation to capture Ahmed.
Ahmed’s arrest "underscores the need for continued vigilance against terrorist threats and demonstrates how the government can neutralize such threats before they come to fruition," said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, in a statement. "Farooque Ahmed is accused of plotting with individuals he believed were terrorists tobomb our transit system, but a coordinated law enforcement and intelligence effort was able to thwart his plans."
The case against Ahmed is another in a pattern of plots by naturalized US citizens who apparently became radicalized in recent years. The FBI, who arrested Ahmed, called on Americans to keep their eyes open for possible domestic terrorism activity.
Acting FBI Assistant Director John Perren said in a statement, "Just as we ask the public to remain vigilant about possible terrorists among us, the FBI remains committed to rooting out and dismantling those groups and organizations who seek to cause harm to US citizens."
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, vowed that Congress would continue to investigate plots against public transportation systems with the goal of providing oversight and resources to federal authorities responsible for disrupting such plots.
"Threats against mass transit systems are not new, just new to us," Thompson said in a statement. "This committee has issued reports and passed legislation on the need for increased security for these systems. This arrest is another example of how public vigilance and information sharing are paramount to our fight against anyone who wants to do us harm. We will continue to examine this and all threats to ensure the safety of the riding public."
Homeland security analysts have been concerned about the emergence of homegrown terrorism for years but US policymakers only recently have turned their attention to the growing problem due to incidents in the past two years, Daniel Kaniewski, deputy director of The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, told HSToday.us.
"This shows the real and present threat of homegrown terrorism," Kaniewski remarked.
"Would-be terrorists are realizing that our public transportation system is vulnerable. We may be experiencing that now, but it is something that has been exploited time and time again overseas. Whether it were Mumbai, London, or Moscow, there have been numerous attacks against both subways and rail," he added.
According to the criminal indictment against Ahmed, he took photographs and video of Metrorail stations that included stops at Arlington Cemetery, Courthouse, Pentagon City, and Crystal City. He shared this information with FBI agents posing as members of al Qaeda in hotel rooms in Arlington, Herndon, Dulles, and Sterling, Va., suggesting to them that planting explosives in those stations around 4 or 5pm would maximize casualties, particularly military casualties.
The Metrorail system represents a soft target, which is appealing to a terrorist strike, Kaniewski explained.
"We choose the type of society that tolerates some level of risk in public transportation systems in exchange for freedom of movement. Frankly, this isn’t unlike other soft targets like sports stadiums or other venues where we as a society would not tolerate a higher level of security," he stated.
While Americans would not tolerate high security measures such as magnetometers and X-ray devices at inherently open systems like subway rail systems, federal, state, and local authorities also do not have the money to investin such systems to deter or defeat terrorists, Kaniewski said. The vast majority of federal money going into transportation security has appropriately been dedicated to aviation security.
"I don’t feel comfortable pulling money away from aviation security," Kaniewski commented.
Still, federal, state, and local authorities have been able to boost the visible presence of police at subway rail stations and to conduct drills like Operation Rail Safe, an exercise that included Amtrak rail in the Washington, DC, area from Oct. 9-11.
"There were a lot of questions then about it. Is this really necessary to show this kind of police presence? Isn’t thisgoing to scare people unnecessarily? I don’t think anyone is asking those questions today," Kaniewski said.
Clearly, however, the FBI was on top of this plot, he said. While there is not yet any evidence that anyone other than Ahmed was involved in the plan to terrorize Washington, investigations of these matters usually take some time to reveal if others were potentially involved.
The indictment against Ahmed details his activities and interaction with agents posing as members of al Qaeda.
According to the indictment, Ahmed first met with the fake terrorists on April 18 in Dulles, where they provided him a list of hotels where they would meet with him in the future.
Ahmed met with them next on May 15 and said he planned to travel on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia on November 2010. Afterward, he would be available to train overseas to participate in jihad sometime around January 2011, he told undercover agents.
That same day in Herndon, Ahmed provided uncover agents with surveillance materials of the Arlington Cemetery Metrorail station. He did so again on July 7. He then increased the frequency of his meetings, providing video and pictures of Metrorail stations on July 13, 14, and 19. He voiced his interest in raising money for terrorist operations overseas during these meetings, according to the indictment.
Ahmed observed the Courthouse and Pentagon City Metrorail stations around August 22, supplying images and diagrams of those stations and the Arlington Cemetery stop to authorities posing as terrorists on Sept. 28. He suggested planning an attack with explosives in the stations in 2011 specifically to target as many military personnel using them as possible.
Ahmed conducted further surveillance on the Crystal City Metrorail around Oct. 21 and planned to meet with his contacts again Oct. 27. The FBI arrested Ahmed when he turned up for that meeting in Herndon.