By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The shock waves from London have rattled windows as far away as Silicon Valley and should awaken us to two uncomfortable truths: our foe has not left the field of battle and we remain dangerously vulnerable, even here at home.
While much remains to be investigated in the horrific, coordinated attacks on London's subways and buses, most security experts have little doubt that this is the work of the extended Islamist extremist network of Al-Qaida.
Coming 16 months after 191 people died in similar attacks on the Madrid rail system, the London bombings demonstrate that Al-Qaida's capacity to carry out fairly sophisticated terrorist assaults in the West is barely diminished.
"If this could happen in London, which probably has the best security system in the world, at least for urban protection, it is a very ominous sign for the United States," longtime former CIA counter-terror expert Michael Scheuer commented on National Public Radio.
The targeting of rail transportation systems in Madrid and London is particularly terrifying, because those systems remain alarmingly unprotected in the United States. While true for rail passengers, it is even more so for the rest of us. If a freight train were attacked, toxic chemicals such as chlorine gas could kill tens of thousands of people if released into the atmosphere.
Homeland security officials and experts have sounded alarms about this danger for some time. Chlorine gas, along with other toxic chemicals, is routinely transported in clearly labeled rail cars through major cities in this country. An attack on a single rail tanker could unleash a toxic cloud that could kill or harm 100,000 people in less than an hour, according to a Naval Research Laboratory study. When a train carrying chlorine derailed in South Carolina in January, 10 people died.
The threat is also to chemical plants. A July 2004 report from the Homeland Security Council on possible disaster scenarios to prepare federal, state and local authorities includes an attack on a chlorine storage tank.
Terrorists might need two years to plan for the attack, but the actual infiltration, placing explosives and fleeing could take less than 20 minutes. The report estimates such an attack could kill 17,500 people, cause 10,000 severe injuries and send 100,000 to hospitals.
The release of poisonous gas from a factory in Bhopal, India, in 1984 killed 15,000 people and injured more than 500,000.
According to a Congressional Research Service report this week, as many as 111 chemical plants that store toxic chemicals are located near major population centers. California, with 13 such plants, ranks second in the nation.
The San Francisco Bay Area is particularly vulnerable to this threat. The Dow Chemical plant in Pittsburg, in the East Bay, receives rail and truck shipments of four toxic chemicals, including chlorine, and produces a fifth on site -- information readily available on the Internet.
"All of these chemicals are going through residential, metropolitan areas," Maria Duazo, a hazardous-materials specialist for Contra Costa county, told me.
Security at the Pittsburg facility has been stepped up recently, including the Coast Guard as the lead security agency. Annual drills take place involving state and local officials.
Welcome as this is, such steps are marginal. Additional spending by the federal government on this problem -- and on many other gaps in homeland security -- has been almost non-existent.
"To date, the federal government has not made a material reduction in the inherent vulnerability of hazardous chemical targets inside the United States," Richard Falkenrath, a former homeland security adviser to President Bush, told Congress earlier this year.
Fixes exist to significantly reduce the risk, including improved containment for the chemicals, rerouting of the most dangerous shipments around crowded areas and substituting non-toxic alternative chemicals. But legislation to deal with this danger, including a bill introduced in June by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., has gone nowhere, thanks to the opposition of the rail and chemical industries and the Bush administration.
The barbarism in London should shake loose this complacency. Unfortunately, the vulnerability of hazardous chemicals is only one of many chinks in our armor.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.