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Metro anti-terrorism teams to begin random bag inspections to avert attacks

By Ann Scott Tyson and Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 9:44 PM

Metro anti-terrorism teams will immediately start random inspections of passengers' bags and packages to try to protect the rail and bus system from attack, transit officials said Thursday.

Police using explosives-screening equipment and bomb-sniffing dogs will pull aside people carrying bags for the inspections according to a random number, Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn said. The searches might be conducted at one location at a time or at several places simultaneously. If people refuse, they will be barred from entering the rail station or boarding a bus with the item, Taborn said. The inspections will be conducted "indefinitely," he said.

Taborn told Metro's board of directors about the plan during a meeting Thursday. Metro had planned to implement random searches in 2008 during times of elevated threat levels but never conducted any.

Thursday's announcement came six weeks after federal law enforcement authorities arrested Farooque Ahmed, 34, of Ashburn in an alleged plot to bomb Metrorail stations in Northern Virginia. Last week, authorities arrested Awais Younis, 25, of Arlington County on accusations that he made threats on his Facebook page to place pipe bombs aboard Metro rail cars, according to court documents.

However, Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles said the inspections are not a response to any specific or heightened threat.

"It's good to vary your security posture," he said, noting that transit agencies in New York, New Jersey and Boston have successfully carried out random checks.

The inspections over the far-flung transit network, which has 86 rail stations and 12,000 bus stops, will be conducted by several dozen officers at most. Metro's trains and buses carry more than 1.2 million passengers every weekday, and officials acknowledge the limitations of the plan.

"This is just another method to sort of throw the bad guy off" by using the threat of a search to discourage bringing a bomb into the transit network, Taborn said. "We're not going to clog up the Metro system."

Riders consider impact

Metro riders had mixed reactions about the plan.

Sienna Reynaga, a 32-year-old writer from Reston, arrived at the West Falls Church Station with two bags of luggage after returning from Spain.

Reynaga said the inspections will be effective at one thing: slowing everyone down.

"I would have been mad today if somebody checked my bags," she said, laughing, "because it's cold."

Falls Church resident Irv Morgan, 49, said the inspections violate the Constitution.

"I think it will create a sense of unease," he said before boarding an Orange Line train from the West Falls Church Station to attend a Christmas party in the District.

Morgan, a longtime Metro rider, said the system was once efficient and reliable.

"Metro is none of those things these days," he said, adding that the security inspections are "one more level of degradation of what Metro use to be."

Metro officials said the searches will be quick and unobtrusive.

Metro's 20-member anti-terrorism police unit, its special operations unit, and several teams of dogs and handlers will conduct the checks with assistance from Transportation Security Administration personnel, officials said.

The officers will call over people whose bags are selected for screening to a table and allow them to watch the inspection.

The searches will take one or two minutes and will involve swabbing bags with special paper, which will be analyzed using a hand-held device that tests for explosives. A bag that tests positive will be double-checked by a bomb-sniffing dog.

Only bags that test positive will be opened, Metro said.

The screening will be conducted before passengers pay to enter the rail system or board a bus, and customers who refuse the inspections will be "free to leave," Taborn said. But there is a possibility that those who decline screening will be questioned.

Metro officials predicted that customers would appreciate the added security. The system, which is largely open, depends on riders for vigilance, Taborn said.

"What we've found in the past is . . . people welcomed it," said Sarles, the former head of New Jersey Transit.

Inspecting other systems

In 2004, Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority became the first transit agency in the nation to institute a permanent policy of random bag and package searches on subways and commuter trains. It was prompted by the deadly al-Qaeda-linked train bombing in March of that year that killed 191 people in Madrid.

New York City authorities began random bag searches in the subway system in 2005 after mass transit bombings in London that killed 56 people, said Paul J. Browne, deputy commissioner of the New York police.

Browne said the searches are conducted by some of the 2,500 police officers assigned to the subway system.

"Backpacks and other luggage are checked for explosives using swabs similar to those used at airports," he said in an e-mail.

"We periodically find illegal weapons and drugs, but we have not uncovered explosives as part of a terrorist plot," Browne said. "That's not to say the system hasn't deterred an attack. We rarely know if police presence has deterred an attack. . . . The unpredictability of which stations and at what times inspections take place makes it harder for plotters to plan an attack."

New York officers stop one out of five, one out of 10 or another ratio of riders based on the number of passengers, Browne said. Four out of 11 known terrorist plots targeting New York since the Sept. 11 attacks have involved the subway system, he said.

New Jersey's transit system and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey began random inspections soon after New York did.

Bombings on trains in Mumbai in 2006, which killed more than 200 people; a terrorist attack that began at Mumbai's historic railway station in 2008; and two suicide bombings on Moscow's Metro in March further exposed the vulnerabilities of rail systems.

"You put these into place because there's no question that these types of security measures do act as deterrents," said Brian Michael Jenkins, director of the Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. "Washington's Metro has been looking at this for quite a while," and it gives systems a chance to rehearse and prepare for increases in security if they become needed.

The institute, which tracks attempts on transit systems worldwide, found that they have increasingly become an "attractive target."

Over a three-month stretch last year, researchers found an average of 88 attacks on transit systems per month and determined that 83 percent of attacks on passenger rail involved explosive devices.

Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, performed occasional bag checks in response to threats or as part of counterterrorism exercises after the Sept. 11 attack but expanded the program in 2008 after seeing the success of the New York subway program.

Metro Orange Line riders Lina Dajani, 25, and Kaydia Kentish, 26, said they would not mind the inspections.

"We do it at airports, so it shouldn't be an issue doing it here," Kentish said.

"If it's on everyone, it's kind of a security issue," Dajani said. "I'd rather be safe."

Staff writer Kafia A. Hosh contributed to this report.

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