Al Qaeda had U.S. trains in its sights, U.S. officials say
Evidence collected from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan indicates that Al Qaeda considered launching a terrorist strike against America’s rail system, U.S. officials said Thursday, though there was no sign of concrete plans to carry out an attack.
The plot was “aspirational,” said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The apparent plot was discovered amid the documents, computers, hard drives, flash drives, DVDs and other material that U.S. commandos recovered after they killed Bin Laden in his hide-out Monday. It is the first information made public from the vast haul.
In response to the new intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security sent a bulletin to state and local police officials Thursday urging them to remain at a “heightened state of vigilance,” said Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the department.
“We have no information of any imminent terrorist threat to the U.S. rail sector, but wanted to make sure our partners were aware of the alleged plotting,” Chandler said.
Officials said Al Qaeda members discussed the plot in February 2010 and planned to execute it later this year, on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Associated Press reported.
Terrorists aligned with or inspired by Al Qaeda have targeted trains with deadly effect in the past.
In March 2004, coordinated bombings of commuter trains in Madrid killed 191 people and injured about 1,800. In July 2005, four suicide bombers blew up three subway trains and a double-decker bus in London, killing 52 people and injuring about 700.
U.S. authorities have added airport security personnel and tightened screening for passengers and cargo coming into the country since the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Trains and subway systems are more difficult to secure, given the millions of people who get on and off every day. Rather than using checkpoints to screen each passenger, police and bomb-sniffing dogs conduct random checks on platforms, stations and aboard some trains.
Mass-transit systems and passenger trains “unfortunately remain a target,” John Pistole, the Transportation Security Administration administrator, told a congressional hearing on rail security Wednesday. He said they had been “the focus of numerous plots here in the U.S. — unsuccessful, fortunately.”
Mass transit is “the most vulnerable,” agreed Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which held the hearing. “And having been to London and to Madrid and seen the terrible damage that was done there by Al Qaeda, you realize, one, in some ways how much easier it is for terrorists to attack mass transit, and also how horrific the tragedy is when it occurs.”
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