Post-9/11, biggest terror threat is underground

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NEW YORK — It’s the morning rush in the Times Square subway station, a routine convergence of humanity and mass transit that makes New York City hum. Mixing seamlessly with subway riders are New York Police Department officers with heavy body armor and high-powered rifles, commanders in blue NYPD polo shirts carrying smart phone-size radiation detectors and a panting police dog named Sabu.

“This is the new normal,” Inspector Scott Shanley of the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Division says. “The only people who sometimes get raised up are tourists.”

Since terrorists brought down the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, subways have been bombed in terror attacks across the world, including in Madrid, London and this spring in Minsk, Belarus. The possibility that New York’s sprawling, porous and famously gritty subway system could be next has become a constant worry — leading to a new normal of suspicious package alerts, bomb-sniffing dogs, cameras trained on commuters and passengers listening to the missive, “if you see something, say something.”

The campaigns encouraging residents to report suspicious activity strike Manhattan writer Anne Nelson, 57, as Orwellian.

“New York is about expression and life and vibrancy,” she said, walking through Times Square. “It’s not about living in an atmosphere of fear.”

A heavily armed police officer stands guard at a Times Square subway station in New York on July 1, 2011. (Associated Press)

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A heavily armed police officer stands guard at a Times Square subway ... more >

But authorities here believe a serious attack on the 24-hour subway system with more than 400 stations, would potentially cripple the city in ways worse than the Sept. 11 attack — a concern shared in other countries reliant on mass transit and viewed as enemies by terrorists.

The human toll — going back when the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s 1995 nerve gas attack killed 12 people and injured thousands in Tokyo’s subways — has already been devastating. In Madrid, Islamic militants set off 10 backpack bombs on the commuter rail network in 2004, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,800; in London, another suicide bomb strike killed 52 commuters and injured 700 in the city’s deadliest attack since World War II; and earlier this year in Minsk, a remote-controlled bomb killed 12 people and wounded 200 in the city’s main subway station.

In New York, no one has pulled off an attack, but there have been plenty of scares.

Last year, a homegrown al-Qaida operative, Najibullah Zazi, pleaded guilty to plotting a suicide bomb attack timed for rush hour to cause the most bloodshed. The former airport shuttle driver told a judge his plan was “to conduct a martyrdom operation on the subway lines in Manhattan as soon as the material was ready.” The NYPD also foiled a 2004 plot to bomb Manhattan’s Herald Square subway station. And there were reports in that al-Qaida considered a cyanide attack on the subway system in 2003.

New York’s subway system, the largest in the country, has more than 465 far-flung stations, most with multiple entrances, and 800 miles of track that would stretch to Chicago if laid end to end. Last year, it carried 5.2 million riders on the average weekday — well more than double the number of travelers who pass through U.S. airports each day.

“It’s really a potentially very vulnerable environment — one that you can’t totally protect,” said William Bratton, a Kroll security firm executive who’s headed New York and Los Angeles police departments and was chief of the New York City transit. “That’s the reality of it. … It’s a unique challenge.”

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said the NYPD tries to meet that challenge by going to “extraordinary lengths” in the subways each day “to make our presence seen and felt in different ways, giving would-be terrorists and common criminals cause to think twice.”

“We have a lot of ground to cover,” he says.

Pre-9/11, covering that ground meant mostly fighting conventional crime — from robberies and assaults to fare beating and drug possession.

Post, the department has asked its 2,500 uniformed and plainclothes transit officers to fight terror as well.

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