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The jihadi threat to rail security

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By Michelle Malkin  •  September 22, 2009 10:15 AM

The arrest of terror suspect Najibullah Zazi has re-focused Obama’s homeland security officials on the ongoing jihadi threat to rail security.

Mass transit systems across the country are on renewed alert:

A 24-year-old Afghan man at the center of an unfolding FBI investigation into a possible U.S. terrorism cell was ordered held without bond in Colorado Monday as authorities raced to learn more about an alleged plot using hydrogen peroxide explosives and who else might have been helping to carry it out.

Meanwhile, authorities in Washington and elsewhere were stepping up safety patrols on mass transit systems in response to an advisory issued in connection with the probe.

Officials with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI sent a bulletin to transit agencies Friday repeating past warnings to be on guard for attacks on mass transit systems, and identifying hydrogen peroxide-based explosives as a specific risk…Local officials in Washington said the bulletin specifically mentioned Grand Central Station in New York City, but said they have nevertheless increased the number of random patrols…

…Counterterrorism experts said U.S. officials were taking the case “very seriously” because of the apparent similarities to recent plots in the United Kingdom linked to al-Qaeda.

The Zazi investigation has focused on a type of improvised liquid explosive involving hydrogen peroxide — HMTD — that was involved in several plots in Britain traced to operatives linked to al-Qaeda, including the London transit bombings on July 7, 2005, that killed 56 people; a failed copycat attack two weeks later; and a plot, foiled by authorities in August 2006, to blow up at least seven transatlantic airliners.

The transit bombings involved people with backpack bombs, and all plots had ringleaders or other key participants with legal residency in the United Kingdom and who had traveled to Pakistan.

“The explosives element, the training and the backpacks — all are part of the core al-Qaeda bomb-making curriculum as we’ve seen in two specific incidents in the United Kingdom, and if you take out the backpacks, the last three significant U.K. incidents,” said Bruce R. Hoffman, a counterterrorism analyst at Georgetown University.

Unlike in recent U.S. plots — which federal authorities often described as “aspirational” and whose leaders’ search for expertise or weapons often unwittingly led to them to consult FBI informants — Zazi may have been trained to work with explosives.

On September 11, I reported on the Obama administration’s dismantling of the nation’s most highly-trained post-9/11 counterterrorism rail security team:

According to multiple government sources who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, OSSSO’s East Coast and West Coast teams have not worked in a counterterrorism capacity since the summer. Their long-arms were put under lock and key after the abrupt departures of Amtrak vice president for security strategy and special operations Bill Rooney and Amtrak Inspector General Fred Weiderhold.

Weiderhold played an instrumental role in creating OSSSO’s predecessor at Amtrak, the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU). He tapped Rooney to oversee the office. But Rooney was quietly given the “thank you for your service” heave-ho in May and Weiderhold was unexpectedly “retired” a few weeks later — just as the government-subsidized rail service faced mounting complaints about its meddling in financial audits and probes.

As I reported in June, Weiderhold had blown the whistle on intrusion of Amtrak’s Law Department into his financial audits and probes. A damning, 94-page report from an outside legal firm concluded that the “independence and effectiveness” of the Amtrak inspector general’s office were “being substantially impaired” by the Law Department – which happens to be headed by Eleanor Acheson, a close pal of Vice President Biden.

Biden, in turn, is tight with the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the powerful union that represents the Amtrak Police Department. According to OSSSO sources, the APD brass have been aggrieved over the non-unionized counterterrorism unit’s existence from its inception. A West Coast OSSSO team member told me that union leaders blocked police credentialing efforts by his office for more than a year. An East Coast OSSSO team member told me that the FOP recently filed a grievance against one of its counterterrorism officers for assisting a train conductor who asked for help in ejecting a ticketless passenger.

Unlike the highly-specialized officers at OSSSO, APD officers possess minimal counterterrorism training. Past studies show alarmingly low pass rates among APD patrolmen who have attended undergone basic special operations classes, according to government sources. The Amtrak FOP continues to squabble over turf with the rival Teamsters Union; its leaders can’t even agree on minimal physical fitness standards for its members that have yet to be implemented. Nevertheless, OSSSO is now under the command and control of the APD — and federal stimulus funding specifically earmarked for the counterterrorism unit has now been absorbed by the police department.

After my column appeared, Amtrak officials confirmed that OSSSO unit members had their long-arms taken away and that West Coast OSSSO members remain uncommissioned due to union squabbling in California.

“Amtrak fully expects to have a resolution in the near future,” I was told.

Dickering while jihadis plot.

Forever stuck in 9/10 mode.

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