New York Police Department officers patrol Penn Station in New York during a multi-agency counterterrorism surge operation on Jan. 14, 2019. (New York Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Andrew Valenza)

How the Terror Threat to Rail Has Evolved 15 Years After Madrid

Fifteen years after the deadliest terror attack in Spain’s history, terror groups and their ideological adherents still peg passenger rail, freight rail and commuter trains as targets to inflict mass casualties and spread panic among those who depend on mass transit.

On March 11, 2004, 10 bombs on four commuter trains at three stations in Madrid killed 193 people and wounded more than 1,800. Two days later, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the carnage.

Many years later, the passenger rail threat was illustrated sharply by al-Qaeda in their Inspire magazine, a jihadist how-to guide that speaks clearly to a Western audience and lives in perpetuity on the internet — so much so that the 2010 inaugural issue, which inspired the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers, was discovered last year to have been uploaded at some point as a free e-book available for download at Barnes & Noble.

In a 2017 issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s magazine — also the most recently released issue — the cover story was train derailment operations, with a recipe for a derailment tool, an illustrated timeline of devastating derailments in America, and a map of passenger and freight rail lines belonging to Amtrak, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, BNSF and CSX lifted from the Department of Transportation.

(Al-Qaeda Inspire magazine)

As both ISIS and al-Qaeda have been highlighting terror attack methods that eschew suicide and leave the jihadist alive to conduct another attack, the Inspire issue stressed that targeting train tracks could be preferable to attacking train cars or stations.

“America’s railroads are estimated to be a 1/3 of the world’s railway. So how can they protect 240,000 km of railroad … it is practically impossible. The same goes to Britain, with 18,500 km and France, with 29,473 km. It is a daunting and almost impossible task to protect the long railroad length, and yet one of the easiest to target. That may result to great damage and destruction on different levels,” al-Qaeda’s “Lone Jihad Guidance Team” wrote, adding that “it is time that we instill fear and make them impose strict security measures to trains as they did with their air transportation.”

“We have to expose more of their vulnerabilities in their security,” the writers added. “And when they spend millions of dollars to tackle a vulnerability we should be ready to open a new [front]…  we expect that there will be no effective solution to the security gaps that may be caused by these types of operations that target the train system.”

AQAP was particularly interested in the popular Acela high-speed route running between D.C. and Boston, as well as discussing the Amtrak Cascades, the Coast Starlight, the Pacific Surfliner, the Palmetto line and more.

“This is the most suited condition for a successful train derail operation. When a train reaches high speed then it has to be reduced to around 100 km/h. This is because a train at a very high speed is hard to control or manage using brakes. For example America’s high-speed train ‘Acela’ requires a whole mile so that it can come to a halt, this is because of the train’s very high speed. Another reason is that the train losses weight and stability when it is at high speeds,” the article stated. “Therefore a Mujahid must be aware of areas where the train increases its speed and places where the train moves at a high speed.”

Even better, al-Qaeda argued, is a scenario “that makes the different security agencies sleepless” — if a jihadist could wage a complex “dual operation” attacking a train hauling hazardous materials through a well-populated area. “Observing and surveilling the movements of these Hazmat trains” was key, the magazine said, as well as tapping into open-source intelligence available from government agencies and other outlets in the U.S.

Step-by-step instructions showed jihadists how to make a “derailment tool” to clamp onto a track composed of concrete, rebar, sheet metal and rubber. A DHS official told HSToday last year that the tool, as detailed in the pictorial open-source instructions, was assessed as not strong enough to be able to take a train off the tracks.

Still, would-be terrorists of all stripes are experimenting with the recipes circulated in the public domain by al-Qaeda. Akayed Ullah, an ISIS supporter convicted in November of unsuccessfully trying to detonate a device in a New York City subway tunnel during the 2017 Christmas season, reportedly was reading Inspire and used Christmas lights in his pipe bomb; a 2015 al-Qaeda tutorial showed how to use a Christmas bulb to put a three-second delay on a pipe bomb explosion.

ISIS supporters have also included rail lines in their propaganda posters that urge lone jihadists toward specific methods or targets.

Last April, ISIS-backing Al-Abd Al-Faqir Media released an image of explosives at New York’s High Street – Brooklyn Bridge Station, a man standing on the platform, with the threat in English and Arabic: “You will not expect where we will attack.” It may have been a randomly picked suggested target, as the exact photo of the High Street station is high up in search results when entering the words “train station” at free photo site Pixabay.

Last year’s conviction of a D.C. transit officer — the first cop in the U.S. charged with attempting to support ISIS — underscored the potential of an insider threat at the rail stations being protected.

Nicholas Young, 38, of Fairfax, Va., was a Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officer assigned to the Takoma Park station who tried to financially aid ISIS in 2016 and, previously, lied to investigators about an associate he believed had traveled to join ISIS; the Justice Department said Young schooled an FBI source “on how to evade law enforcement detection by utilizing specific travel methods and advised the [confidential human source] to watch out for informants and not discuss his plans with others.” He was sentenced to 15 years behind bars.

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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