Choo Choo Track Attacks

I’m bemused by this first report on the intelligence from Osama bin Laden’s compound. Apparently, al Qaeda wants to derail trains.

A new bulletin issued tonight by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and obtained by ABC News describes the terror organization’s chilling desire to derail a train.

“As of February 2010, al-Qa’ida was allegedly contemplating conducting an operation against trains at an unspecified location in the United States on the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001,” the document reads, using an alternate spelling for bin Laden’s terror group. “As one option, al-Qa’ida was looking into trying to tip a train by tampering with the rails so that the train would fall off the track at either a valley or a bridge.”

With all due respect to the fuckers that brought down the World Trade Center, really? They want to tip a train off a track?

I’m bemused for several reasons. First, it sort of, kind of, refutes the point Jose Rodriguez is clinging to to justify having stopped the investigation of OBL. That is, OBL is still getting terrorist proposals; he’s not just a figurehead.

That said, really? The US is going to get all hot and bothered over a train derailment? When we manage to derail trains through our own declining rail stock all the time? And al Qaeda, the terrorist organization that scored one of the biggest media coups ever by taking down NYC landmarks wants to topple a train in a valley that doesn’t house major media outlets?

Finally, though, I can’t help but relish in the irony. As I noted earlier, our government seems to have a fondness for analogizing al Qaeda with Native Americans, first to Seminoles and then to Apaches. All this time we’ve been playing Cowboys and Indians. Only we totally misunderstood that we’re now dealing with the equivalent of Jesse James and his nineteenth century attacks on trains, not Indians. Al Qaeda and its current “aspirational” attacks has been degraded to the tactics used by Wild West gangsters.

But apparently, we’re still trying to fearmonger over it.

    • editoru says:

      A new expansion for TSA (and more hassle/humiliation for travelers) is EXACTLY what I thought as soon as I read that report yesterday (or day before?). Actually it was not my first thought, but my second. The first thought was that this likely was total BS – not impossible, but probably intended to get everybody nervous again.

      Might have to bring back the alert colors. There’s an election coming.

      editor_u (the comment system won’t let me put the underscore in my screen name)

  1. MadDog says:

    The WaPo has this Greg Miller piece up:

    CIA spied on bin Laden from safe house

    The CIA maintained a safe house in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad for a small team of spies who conducted extensive surveillance over a period of months on the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Operations forces this week, U.S. officials said…

    …The effort was so extensive and costly that the CIA went to Congress in December to secure authority to reallocate tens of millions of dollars within assorted agency budgets to fund it, U.S. officials said.

    Most of that surveillance capability remained in place until the execution of the raid by U.S. Navy SEALs shortly after 1 a.m. in Pakistan. The agency’s safe house did not play a role in the raid and has since been shut down, in part because of concerns about the safety of CIA assets in the aftermath, but also because the agency’s work was considered finished…

    Wonder if “Raymond Davis” stayed there?

  2. Peterr says:


    Clearly they have seen Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 and are determined to deal a blow to Ayn Rand and her symbol of unfettered, self-centered, capitalistic, I’ve-got-mine-and-the-rest-of-you-can-go-to-hell world.

  3. orionATL says:

    the attack on the wtc was pure” disaster movie plot”.

    i’d love to ask kahlid s. mohammed which hollywood plane/ship disaster movie he was watching when it suddenly occurred to him how to avenge his cousin, ramsey bin yousef, by bombing the wtc with airplanes, the planes serving as both the weapon and its delivery system.


    derailing a train?

    maddog senses the drift.

    another hollywood plot – a staple actually.

    – chop several trees in the path.

    – roll big boulders onto the track – careful now, don’t let them roll beyond the track.

    – use a crow’s foot to dig out spikes, then remove some crossties – ever see a locamotive do the splits?

    – and then there’s placing dynamite on the trestle, hundreds, maybe thousands, of feet above a rushing river, accompanied by typical hollywood scary- mood-music.

    is it kosher to speculate why the fbi hasn’t arrested hollywood directors, producers, financiers, and actors for material support of terrorism?

    can you arrest a horse for material support of terrorism?

    well for one, most of the grade b cowboy movie folks are pushin’ up daiseys.

    for another, pakistanis watching american culture and deploying it against americans doesn’t have much zip.

  4. manys says:

    With all these laptops and thumbdrives snagged from the Mayor of Abbottabad, the US Gov’t is going to be able to say whatever they want for years and years. This seems engineered to encroach the TSA on the last bit of unharassed travel available in the US.

    Screw the death photos, release the data from the harddrives.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I think that’s a tad ethnocentric for an Irish lass. There are trains in countries other than the lower 48. Some of them run on time, though rarely in England.

    Some run underneath water, around major ports and roads, and through critical mountain passes. American switching yards may be in places like Frankfort, IN, and Meadville, PA, but elsewhere they are nearer capital or major cities or ports. Yokohama and Oakland come to mind, as do the Rhine, and outside Denver and Toronto. I think the addiction is to havoc wherever it can be encouraged to the greatest effect at the least cost.

    Some of those trains carry flammable or toxic substances. There were a lot of WTF’s exchanged when it was noticed that a major unguarded railway underpass in SE Washington, DC, regularly carried such things within a home run’s distance of US government offices. (In the US, it would be redundant to say “unguarded” or “unfenced”.) Some of them also run for great lengths along waterways that provide drinking water to millions.

    Edging a locomotive off of rusting, poorly maintained American rail lines in the middle of the desert next to those X-Files corn crops would not be the only way to cause havoc that would affect the lives of millions.

    • orionATL says:


      why get so excercised about trains?

      any propane or gasoline tanker would be a more frequently available and easier to turn into a bomb target.

      but we don’t even have to wait for turrerrists ?

      the volume of truck traffic pretty much guarantees such an accident from time-to-time.

      as, for that matter, it does railroad accidents involving chemicals.

      and, now that i’m reflecting on such matters,

      the same goes for non-terrorista generated airplane crashes.

      in general, this seems like a law of large numbers problem.

      can one be charged with m. s. of terrorism for discussing the equivalency in probability of both ordinary accidents and terrorist-generated accidents – and the infrequency, but certainty, of both?

    • emptywheel says:

      Yeah, I know. And FWIW I’m back in train country–we have a big trainyard in my new urban hellhole. And I’ve spent some time on Harry Potter’s train tracks recently. That’d make a big movie splash.

      Still, we do cause significant derailments all the time…

  6. tryggth says:

    Going way off topic, what about that Ghul guy?
    Didn’t Hoestra go weird once?
    What was Woodward talking about?
    Man… really miss that puffer up my butt.

  7. sailmaker says:

    I remember Winston Churchill describing the great trains of South Africa in his “My Early Life”. The trains were the lifeblood of Boer Africa, as they were in our mid west. Churchill had thought the trains to be powerful leviathans, sadly most impressive when they rested upon their derailed sides. All it took to starve chains of villages was one bit of dynamite.

    I used to work for a major American flagship. We went with the times into intermodel fright – rail and trucks as well as fast bottoms. Trains were considered the weakest link of the chain, the most problematic.

    Modern day security, both at the ports and in the train yards is lacking. A container on a flatbed in a major population area could bring a nightmare of a dirty bomb to the unsuspecting. Considering that Pakistan has “THE BOMB” and probably the spent fuel from manufacturing it, a loaded freight train derailment could cause a lot more problems than say here, here, or here.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Churchill found out quickly how vulnerable armored trains were. They were wedded to their tracks, making them and their tracks easy targets. Boer commandos captured him during one such attack. His escape from a POW camp via Durban ultimately helped catapult him in the public eye and into public office. A little over a decade later, T.E. Lawrence demonstrated to the Turks how vulnerable their Arabian trains were to attack.

      The broader issue, I think, is that a good portion of the security at airports is theater. It is passenger accessible and trains them in subservience (eg, “Stop” drills, searches, seizures of electronics, all beyond the shoes and shampoo bottles).

      That focus masks vulnerabilities that are less passenger obvious: baggage and cargo screening and handling, food service, fueling and maintenance. Likewise, it distracts from vulnerabilities cargo transport, ports, rail and commercial transport.

      Attacking airlines seems as likely as re-electing Bush; there are less risky targets that would garner more than adequate attention.

  8. dustbunny44 says:

    Has everyone forgotten the 2004 train bombings in and around Madrid? 180+ people killed, 1800+ people injured. Al Qaeda blamed but never charged/convicted.
    Not small potatoes.

    • emptywheel says:

      But that’s sort of the point. A bombing on a train is different than a derailment. The latter is a lot easier to pull off (bc trains tend to derail on their own). The former takes a lot more coordination and requires eluding the security we’ve put up.

      • PJEvans says:

        A lot of derailments are small stuff – the rails spread a bit, or a switch fails to switch, and a car or a locomotive goes off the rails. Rail companies actually do a lot of checking and maintenance to avoid that sort of thing. They have some fairly specialized cars that find ties going bad and replace them without having to replace whole sections of track. Also they’re starting to use reinforced-concrete ties, which may last longer.

  9. prostratedragon says:

    Funny, since 2001 as I’ve ridden (rode? rad? ugly verb, ride) the train over the Chicago River trestle bridge into Amtrak yard it’s often occured to me that OBL/AQ pretty much shot their wad on 9/11.

    For instance, if they took out a train crossing that bridge they might get a couple or three hundred fatalities, right on the edge of downtown Chicago. But just a couple hundred yards to the east of that point in the river in 1915 a large ship, the Eastland, rolled over while taking on passengers. With over 800 fatalities, the incident is still possibly the largest of Chicago’s great civic horrors in loss of life (no one’s entirely sure about the Iroquois Theater), and ranks pretty high on the mind-numbingly surreal scale to boot.

    There’s a lot to be said for finding some other damn way to make one’s mark in the world.

  10. BoxTurtle says:

    Those of you who consider this to be a small time plan, look at the freight train next time you stop at a crossing. It’s just LOADED with tank cars full of chemicals, box cars full of flammables and other wonderful stuff. Dump it, mix it, and light it and you could have a major evacuation on your hands. in 1986 near me, 20K people were evacuated due to just ONE tank car with Phophorous busting open. The people in Chernobyl were making Maimisburg jokes for awhile.

    Boxturtle (If that same car had derailed just 60 miles later, 1M people in Columbus would have had to evac)

  11. scribe says:

    Somewhere, someone, has a better snark on this than I can pull off, but they have to be able to tie John Galt, Dagny Taggart, and OBL blowing up the tracks all into this.

    Then again, the way the Villagers have been running things lately, the Galtists have been using Atlas Shrugged like an instruction manual for how to crash things.

    But, a little more seriously, if OBL is down to trainwrecking, we’re lookin’ pretty good in the counter-terra department. It’s not like we have any really high speed trains that would realy make for a nasty wreck. (Then again, a couple years back there was an ICE express train in Germany that ran into a flock of sheep someone let onto the tracks near a tunnel. Made a real mess of things when it derailed….)

  12. CTMET says:

    Why does this make me think of the Honorable William J. Lepetomane as OBL. Perhaps KSM was Mr. Taggart (which is what I first thought of when I read scribes post above since I have avoided reading Ayn Rand).

    Of course the President has long been compared to Sheriff Bart.

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The fact that derailments happen owing to lack of maintenance does not detract from the utility of causing them to happen at inconvenient times or locations, such as near bridge abutments, in major passes, etc., that is, at troublesome locations. Two people could climb aboard different trains in central Washington and wreak havoc in Portland and Seattle inside of an hour.

    The goal needn’t be death. Significant disruption establishes vulnerability, fear and overreaction that promotes a terrorist’s goals. In the US (not the only target), the government does a lot of fearmongering for domestic political advantage and disruption follows, so it would seem gilding the lily not to look at other targets.

  14. PJEvans says:

    There was a news crew at my train station this morning, presumably asking people their thoughts on this story.

    I suspect that if something like this was actually intended, they’d aim for one of the high-traffic passenger stations an a major city for maximum effect (New York and Chicago are high on the list).