The video is chilling. Passengers on a Washington DC metro train gasp for air as the car fills with thick, choking smoke. The voice of the driver can be heard in the background telling them to stay calm, sit still and not open the doors. Time drags by. Help does not come. The smoke thickens.
As of this writing one woman has died as a result. A number of other individuals are in critical condition. An investigation is underway.
The most disturbing part for me, however, is how much worse it could have been.
For many years it has been known that Islamist terrorists have had plans for the construction of a device called the mubtakkar. Mubtakkar is an Arabic word that essentially means only invention or machine. However, in this context mubtakkar is a term used by Islamic terrorists to describe a specific device for dispensing cyanide gas.
Plans for the construction of mubtakkar devices were uncovered by American intelligence in the in the Middle East circa 2003. The device was specifically designed for use in attacks on American passenger rail systems including the New York City subway system. The idea was to fill the cars of passenger rail trains just like the Washington DC Metro with a thick cyanide gas that would kill everyone inside. This intelligence was not kept secret. Information regarding the device and the threat was passed to the Department of Homeland Security and security officials for passenger rail systems years ago.
It was not simply the idea of a chemical attack on passenger rail that was terrifying. It was the fact that the mubtakkar was designed to be built and deployed by individuals with very limited knowledge of chemistry or explosives. It was built using components and chemicals commonly available throughout the world. It was the poor man's chemical weapon, and it might be deployed at any moment against us. It was perfect for lone wolves and self-radicalized individuals.
And yet somehow here we are in 2015 with employees of the DC Metro system apparently oblivious to the threat and giving precisely the wrong guidance to passengers. Had the DC metro train been filling with cyanide gas instead of smoke from an electrical malfunction there would have been no one left alive by the time firefighters arrived. The only action that would have saved the passengers on the car had a chemical attack been underway would have been to do exactly the opposite of what was done and to get them out of the car and to the nearest station as quickly as possible.
Washington DC Metro
Even though Metro officials started ventilating the tunnel 10 minutes after an electrical breaker tripped, it took 44 minutes to shut power to the affected rail, delaying the emergency response. As of January 19, 2015, one woman died and more than 80 people suffered from smoke inhalation. | Photo: Archives |
It is staggering to think about the level of complacency and inertia that is required for this to have happened. Even in the wake of the Paris attacks, with the entire world on a state of heightened alert, there is absolutely no indication that anyone involved in the response to this incident, be it the driver, the fire department officials or the supervisors of the DC Metro system, gave even a moment's thought to the possibility that they were under terrorist attack. Neither is there any indication that in the aftermath of the incident any consideration has been given to how the fire department and Metro response would have stacked up had we been dealing with a terrorist act not a mechanical issue.
I wish I could say that I thought this was an aberration. Unfortunately, we all know that it is not. When we experienced the first cases of Ebola in this nation months ago we saw immediately that our healthcare system was completely unprepared to deal with even a small number of cases. This was not because of a lack of knowledge or a lack of this theoretical understanding of the disease. It was because of a failure to prepare to deal in the real world with the practical steps necessary for simple things like the disposal of infected linens or the transportation of those soiled linens from an apartment to a location where they could be incinerated.
What we have just seen in Washington DC is exactly the same. It is not a matter of us not understanding that theoretically a threat exists. It is a matter of us not having disseminated that information or having exercised for how to respond to an attack when it actually occurs. Everyone in every profession knows that there is a dramatic difference between talking a good game and actually being able to deliver. In the world of counterterrorism being able to deliver is the only thing that matters.
Terrorist interest in attacking passenger rail has persisted for many years. Other nations, India, Britain and Spain among them, have already suffered such attacks. This is not science fiction or theory. This is as real as it gets.
We were just tested. We failed abysmally. Let's hope that we learn from this mistake. Let's hope we sound the alarm, wake everyone up and get prepared. The next test may be for real.