Bin Laden considered 9/11 anniversary attack on US rail system

The potential plot, sketched out in a vague note last year, was more significant in that it showed that bin Laden was not just a figurehead of Al Qaeda but an active leader.

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Airline passengers pass through security on May 2, at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Florida. Security in airports and train stations has been increased in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Los Angeles Sheriff's Bomb K-9 Threat Interdiction Unit handler, Kiley Hayden and his dog 'XXZYLO' sniffs a subway train at Los Angeles Union Station, on Monday, May 2. Hours after the announcement that terrorist Osama bin Laden had been killed in a firefight near Pakistan’s capital.

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Documents found in the US raid on Osama bin Laden's compound indicate that Al Qaeda was plotting an attack on the US rail system, possibly for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The information, the first major disclosure from what may be the largest intelligence haul since 9/11, comes as Al Qaeda confirmed its leader's death in a statement on jihadist websites, saying that bin Laden's blood "would not be wasted."

The discovery of the documents in Mr. bin Laden's hideout show that he was actively involved in planning attacks, debunking the commonly held belief that he had been reduced to merely a figurehead of Al Qaeda while in hiding. "He continued to plot and plan, to come up with ideas about targets and to communicate those ideas to other senior Qaeda leaders," an unnamed US official briefed on the documents told The New York Times.

The US Department of Homeland Security disclosed the information in a statement issued Thursday, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has warned rail companies of the suspected plot. This was the first release of information gleaned from the documents, computers, hard drives, and other items found in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The New York Times reports that a handwritten note dated February 2010 pondered the possibility of derailing a train traveling across a bridge on Christmas, New Year's Day, the day of the State of the Union address, or on Sept. 11, 2011. The note was vague, and officials have described the plot as mostly "aspirational," with few concrete details.

The Associated Press reports that DHS and TSA told local officials to keep an eye out for train tracks missing crucial pieces, as well as packages left on or near the tracks.

"Counterterrorism officials said this new threat information was more remarkable for its source – bin Laden – than for its content. The notes showed his personal interest in a railway attack," the Wall Street Journal notes.

"It's the first time we've gotten something directly from him," a US counterterrorism official told the Journal. "There was nothing new in it. What's different about it is it was in bin Laden's house."

Intelligence officials have made translating and analyzing the information found in the compound a top priority so that any plots already in the works can be disrupted.

Following the US raid on bin Laden's compound early May 2, American transportation facilities were put on heightened alert in anticipation of possible revenge attacks by Al Qaeda, with increased security at airports in particular.

Mass transport such as trains and subways are more difficult to secure. To date, random checks with bomb-sniffing dogs have been the most common security measure, rather than checkpoints to screen every passenger, as is done in airports.

At a congressional hearing on rail security Wednesday, Rep. Peter King (R) of New York said that mass transit systems are "the most vulnerable," the Los Angeles Times reports.

The March 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid resulted in 191 deaths and about 1,800 people injured, the L.A. Times reports. In July 2005, 52 people died and about 700 were injured when suicide bombers attacked three subway trains and a double-decker bus in London.

The Wall Street Journal reports that this is not the first plot against mass transit in the US. In 2009, the FBI stopped a plot to blow up trains in New York City. In September, Western intelligence officials uncovered an Al Qaeda plot to carry out coordinated attacks in major cities in Britain, France, Germany, and possibly the US, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

No new alert has been issued because the note discussing the attack lacked specifics, according to the DHS statement:

We want to stress that this alleged Al Qa’ida plotting is based on initial reporting, which is often misleading or inaccurate and subject to change. We remain at a heightened state of vigilance, but do not intend to issue an NTAS alert at this time. We will issue alerts only when we have specific or credible information to convey to the American public.

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