National Security

Al-Qaeda Targets US Subway System

“The result of the study showed that a couple of anthrax-laden light bulbs in the subway would put New York out of commission.”

With the decapitation of al-Qaeda by Seal Team Six in Abbottabad back in 2011, many in the US and other nations figured the threat of al-Qaeda was, if not over, at least mitigated. The world focused its attention on the new star in the terrorist world, ISIS.

As has been written about in numerous articles here at OpsLens, al-Qaeda was not going away and were always in the background, morphing and reorganizing. With so much effort placed on ISIS and the elimination of this very real and publicly dangerous threat, al-Qaeda was able to remake itself.

As opposed to the more open and less sophisticated terrorist actions of ISIS, they stayed true to their roots, always working on more intricate attacks and plans against the West. Where ISIS used blunt force and operated almost like a terrorist-aligned conventional army in some respects, al-Qaeda remained a strict “in the background” slow and methodical shadows player.

Al-Qaeda is about to take on a new target in the West. They outline attacking America’s trains in an upcoming edition of the organization’s terror magazine, Inspire. Issue No. 17 is headlined “Train Derail Operations” and will spell out ways to create rail disasters in a transportation system that lacks the stiff security procedures of airline travel.

The Islamic State (ISIS) has advocated using vehicles to mow down innocents, and its followers have weaponized vehicles in Nice, Berlin, and London, creating hundreds of deaths and injuries, but al-Qaeda is going for something bigger.

Adding trains to the terrorists’ priority list would put at risk virtually every mode of transportation and place added pressure on the US Department of Homeland Security. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) put out a report on Friday saying al-Qaeda has teased the Inspire articles with a trailer appearing on Telegram app channels operated by its fans.

“The trailer highlights that derailments are simple to design using easily available materials, that such a planned attack can be hard to detect, and that the outcome can substantially damage a country’s transportation sector and the Western economy in general,” MEMRI said.

NYC’s Metropolitan Transit Authority revealed that an explosion and a breach in the many subway tunnels that run under Manhattan’s East River could shut down the tunnels for years, which former MTA security official Nick Casale said could result in the loss of thousands of lives.

The US maintains over 100,000 miles of rail. But the trailer features scenes of just one system, the subway. It shows cars flashing through urban tunnels. It quotes from US Government Accountability Office reports on the vulnerability of rail lines to sabotage. It then shows what appear to be rudimentary devices that can be clamped onto a line to cause a derailment.

“Simple to design,” the promo says in English script, mentioning “America” several times. “Made from readily available materials. Hard to be detached. Cause great destruction to the Western economy and transportation sector.”

But derailment is not the only danger

NYC’s Metropolitan Transit Authority revealed that an explosion and a breach in the many subway tunnels that run under Manhattan’s East River could shut down the tunnels for years, which former MTA security official Nick Casale said could result in the loss of thousands of lives.

“The water of the East River would start pouring in, and it would not stop,” Casale said. “And at some point, we would have a catastrophic collapse; the report estimated 19,000 casualties.”

A study was actually conducted by the US Army 32 years ago. The secret “vulnerability tests” in the New York subway system showed a chilling vulnerability that made the subway system the perfect location for a particular type of attack. Back then the possibility of a biological attack was not as great as it is now. We know that terrorists have experimented with biological and chemical agents as weapons. An article recently published here at OpsLens illuminated that possibility.

The team conducting the test reported, “Test results show that a significant portion of the working population in downtown New York City would be exposed to disease if one or more pathogenic agents were disseminated covertly in several subway lines at a period of peak traffic.”

The “Study of the Vulnerability of Subway Passengers in New York City to Covert Attack with Biological Agents” began June 6, 1966. The 21-person team broke light bulbs on gratings on the Seventh and Eighth Ave. lines. Each bulb contained 175 grams of Bacillus or about 87 trillion spores. “When the cloud engulfed people, they brushed their clothing, looked up at the grating and walked on,” the team noted. “People in the big city are moving too fast to see what is going on around them.

Those light bulbs contained a harmless anthrax cousin, Bacillus subtilis variant niger. The air currents generated by the moving trains proved particularly effective at disseminating spores, and an estimated 1 million people were exposed. The team observed what happened to the germs when a train departed the station. “The cloud was pulled down the tube after it,” the team noted. Team leader Charles Senseney rode the trains with a measuring device on his belt that was disguised to look like a photographic meter. Other team members toted what appeared to be briefcases and pocketbooks.

The measuring device in the 23rd St. station showed that a citizen’s “calculated respiratory exposure” was some 100,000 spores-a-breath just five minutes after the light bulbs broke. And each train pushed the germ agent farther along a test area stretching from 14th St. to 59th St. The germ “is aerosolized and dispersed rapidly by the movement of the trains, penetrating stations and trains.”

By June 10, only four days after the mock attack, a million New Yorkers were hatching spores in the wet warmth of their lungs. Had it been anthrax, the whole city would have talked about the bad cold that was going around. The truth would have become apparent only when it was too late. The test remained secret until 1975. The result of the study showed that a couple of anthrax-laden light bulbs in the subway would put New York out of commission.

The threat is real

On Monday, March 20, 1995, five members of Aum Shinrikyo launched a chemical attack on the Tokyo subway. The chemical agent used was liquid sarin contained in plastic bags. Aum originally planned to spread the sarin as an aerosol, where the attack would have been much more efficient. A single drop of sarin the size of a pinhead can kill an adult.

At prearranged stations, the sarin packets were dropped and punctured several times. The leaking packets were left on the subway floors, allowing the sarin to leak out into the train car and stations. The sarin affected passengers, subway workers, and those who came into contact with them. Sarin is a very volatile nerve agent, meaning it can quickly and easily evaporate from a liquid into a vapor and spread.

The result of the study showed that a couple of anthrax-laden light bulbs in the subway would put New York out of commission.

After the attack, ambulances transported 688 patients. Close to five thousand people reached hospitals on their own and sought treatment. Hospitals saw 5,510 patients, seventeen of whom were deemed critical, 37 severe, and 984 moderately ill with vision problems.

By mid-afternoon, many victims had recovered from vision problems and were released from the hospital. Most of the remaining patients were determined well enough to be discharged the following day. Only a few critical patients remained in the hospital for a week or more. The death toll on the day of the attack totaled eight. Had the sarin been distributed in an aerosol form, as had been planned, the number of victims could have increased exponentially.

The weakness is being taken seriously by NYC

The Subway-Surface Air Flow Exchange (S-SAFE), as the project is formally known, was commissioned by the NYPD and funded through a $3.4 million Department of Homeland Security Transit Security Grant. The study is focused on the air flow and dispersion of airborne contaminants resulting from the release of a CBR agent. The study is also expected to help police and other agencies decide where to locate CBR detection equipment best. Results from the study will help authorities refine evacuation or other responses in the event of an emergency. The final test in the study was concluded July 25th.

Here NYC has recognized that protecting the subway system from conventional attack, derailment, explosion, and armed attacks such as seen in Europe are not enough. Although this study is a step in the right direction, a simple revisiting of the US Army study in 1966 could have revealed the same weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

What this tells us is that the system is still at risk even after 50 years. It is easy to assume the NYC subway system is a disaster in waiting, and all it would take is a couple of terrorists and a few light bulbs.

Jon Harris

Jon Harris is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former Army NCO, Sergeant Morales Club member, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He is published in Army Trainer Magazine, authored regular columns in several newspapers, and is the author of the Cold War novel Breakpoint. His adventures as a security contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq can be found on www.dispatchfromdownrange.com. He holds a B.S. in Government and Politics and an M.S. in Criminal Justice and is currently completing his Juris Doctor degree.

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