Metro plans terrorism drills on train, bus systems

Members of the Metro Transit Police's anti-terrorism unit inspect the Arlington Cemetery Station last month. Earlier that day, they staged inspections of passenger-filled trains.
Members of the Metro Transit Police's anti-terrorism unit inspect the Arlington Cemetery Station last month. Earlier that day, they staged inspections of passenger-filled trains. (Gerald Martineau For The Washington Post)
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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Scores of Metro Transit Police officers with dogs and bomb technicians will swarm one of the system's busiest stations during the morning rush Tuesday in a show of force against a potential terrorist attack, part of a broader effort to bolster security in the rail system.

About 50 officers, including Metro's anti-terrorism unit, criminal investigators, special response teams and other squads, will move into the station about 7:30 to demonstrate heightened vigilance, Metro officials said. The transit agency won't release the name of the station until early Tuesday and asked the media to refrain from disclosing it until after the exercise begins.

"There is no immediate or credible threat" to the Metro system, spokeswoman Cathy Asato said. "We want to stay a step ahead."

Tuesday's operation is a prelude to a series of much larger emergency exercises -- the biggest ever in the Metro system -- that will involve hundreds of officers from across the region responding to simulated explosions and gunmen in scenarios mirroring mass-casualty terrorist attacks on Madrid commuter trains in 2004, the London Underground in 2005 and in Mumbai in 2008, Metro officials said.

"Attackers do know that train systems are good targets for killing and injuring a lot of people," said Brian Jackson, a terrorism analyst at the nonprofit Rand Corp. "Anyone who rides Metro at rush hour knows they put a lot of people in a small area. It's not just that the people are there, but the transit systems have to be open for them to play the roles we want them to play, so they are attractive."

More than 80 percent of such attacks involve firearms and explosives, as will the mock strikes on Metro. Terrorists "do have a strong preference for guns and bombs," Jackson said, because they are familiar with them and "they know they can get a high body count." In contrast, attacks on transit systems using chemical, biological or radiological weapons are relatively rare.

'Unknown risks'

In December, as part of the effort to beef up protection against an attack, Metro created a 20-member anti-terrorism unit that has begun making unannounced security sweeps of Metro stations and tunnels. The unit, funded by a $9.6 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security, conducts random, high-visibility patrols in an effort to deter terrorists from targeting the system. The unit will supplement the presence of Metro's 450-strong police force.

"We want to be unpredictable and keep people off-guard," said Capt. Dave Webb, who heads Metro Transit Police's criminal investigation division.

The three-year grant also pays for specialized training and equipment for the unit, including flashlights, vehicles, and explosives detection devices and screening equipment. At times, the officers might operate covertly, he said.

About 200 to 300 police officers and other emergency responders from across the region and the FBI will take part in tactical exercises Feb. 12, 13 and 24 that will include simulations of the bombing of a Metrobus, an explosion in the tunnel between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom-GWU Metrorail stations, and shooters at the Friendship Heights Station.

"It's an unfortunate reality that we face the unknown risks, either natural or man-made," Acting Transit Police Chief Jeff Delinski said in a statement. "Metro and area emergency responders need to be prepared to respond to any form of terrorist attack or other crisis."

Metro employees, Red Cross workers and other volunteers will play passengers who are victims of the attack, Asato said. "It will be playacting; it's not going to be like paintball or anything." She added that the Friendship Heights exercise will take place in the middle of the night Feb. 24, when the station is scheduled to be closed for track work.

The drills will be followed by tabletop exercises that will help Metro coordinate a strategy to mitigate such incidents with local agencies, including the police, fire and emergency departments from Arlington County, Alexandria, the District, Fairfax County, Prince George's County and Montgomery County, as well as the FBI and National Capital Area American Red Cross. The exercises are funded through a $1.2 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security's Urban Area Security Initiative.

This is only a test

One recent morning at the Crystal City Station, the anti-terrorism unit, along with canine officers and bomb-sniffing dogs, carried out a "targeted train inspection" during rush hour, with officers lining up on platforms on both sides of the tracks and boarding arriving trains to look for suspicious behavior and packages.

The operation was focused on the potential for timed bombs to be set in motion in an outlying station as passengers flowed downtown during rush hour, addressing a scenario similar to the Madrid and London bombings, Webb said.

Sgt. Sean Flinn, a leader of the anti-terrorism unit, said the teams look for people who seem nervous or are wearing clothing that is not appropriate for the weather -- such as bulky clothes in summer.

The unit also looks for people who appear be conducting surveillance of stations, testing the response times of first responders by leaving behind bags or other items or calling for medical care.

"I look for anything out of the ordinary. It could be a bag of garbage -- you just don't know," Officer N. Miller of Silver Spring, one of the anti-terrorism team members, said as he stood on the platform, inspecting trains. "When people see you inspecting, it gives them some comfort knowing we're out here," he said.

The patrols often elicit startled responses from passengers, who assume that something is wrong, said Officer A. France of the District.

Still, with only 20 specialized officers supplementing the usual force and covering a vast system with 86 rail stations and 340 bus routes, the deterrent effect of the new team is limited, experts said.

"A lot of deterrence would require a lot of people and would also slow down the system," said Jackson, the Rand terrorism analyst. He said that although the dispersed, random Metro inspections could discourage a lone terrorist cell that wants to be more certain of the outcome of an attack, they would be less effective against a larger organization running multiple attacks, he said.

"Whether we get the deterrent or not is hard to say with any certainty."

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