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Al-Qaeda plotted 9/11 anniversary rail attack, CIA kept house near Osama home

Al-Qaeda considered attacking the US rail sector on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, US government officials said late Thursday in describing intelligence from Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.

They said some evidence was found indicating that the Al-Qaeda leader or his associates had engaged in discussions or planning for a possible attack on a train inside the United States on September 11, 2011.

As of February 2010, Al-Qaeda “was allegedly contemplating conducting an operation against trains at an unspecified location in the United States on the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001,” the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) advised law enforcement agencies in a bulletin obtained by Agence-France Presse.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, said that the US ran a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) post in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad where Bin Laden was found, operating a team of spies for surveillance of the compound where he was found.

Citing US officials, the Post said the clandestine safe house run by the CIA was used for the supremely delicate task of gathering intelligence in the city just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the capital Islamabad.

The network relied on local informants and other sources to piece together a “pattern of life” in the compound where the Al-Qaeda chief had been living in secrecy in a compound surrounded by towering perimeter walls, the Post said.

The bulletin obtained by AFP said: “While it is clear there was some level of planning, we have no recent information to indicate an active ongoing plot to target transportation and no information on possible locations or specific targets.”

Al-Qaeda “was looking into trying to tip a train by tampering with the rails so that the train would fall off the track at either a valley or a bridge,” according to DHS.

The department and other US agencies have been reviewing the treasure trove of information from Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan seized by the United States during the raid last Sunday that killed the Al-Qaeda leader.

The new warning, which had the effect of emphasizing that Bin Laden seemed to be still integral to Al-Qaeda’s operational planning as of February 2010, came as US officials pored over the fugitive’s seized files.

Experts believed the material—including about five computers, 10 hard drives and 100 storage devices—could prove invaluable to deal further blows to Al-Qaeda 10 years after the deadly attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

US officials said a task force of experts from the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Justice Department and other agencies had begun scouring the material, in a task that would last months and possibly years.

“We have no information of any imminent terrorist threat to the US rail sector, but wanted to make our partners aware of the alleged plotting,” DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said of the bulletin.

The official said that it appeared from the information that this was an idea that Mr. Bin Laden or his associates considered, but there was no indication now from the intelligence that further plans were drawn up for the scheme or that steps were taken to carry it out.

Another US official said Al-Qaeda in February 2010 contemplated the rail attack to occur on the 10th anniversary of the hijacked plane attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, but the group was not tied to that exact date.

Since the raid, the Department of Homeland Security has taken a number of steps in reviewing measures at all potential terrorist targets, including transportation systems across the country. It has added more officers at airports and at the borders.

Mr. Chandler said the alleged Al-Qaeda plot was based on “initial reporting, which is often misleading or inaccurate and subject to change,” according to Reuters.

He said: “We remain at a heightened state of vigilance,” but said there were no plans to raise the national threat level.

Officials have long been concerned that Al-Qaeda might try to carry out attacks on the US rail system.

In 2008, US authorities warned of a possible Al-Qaeda threat to transit systems in and around New York City over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

In 2010, an Afghan immigrant pleaded guilty in New York to plotting a suicide bombing campaign on Manhattan’s subway system in what US authorities described as one of the most serious threats since the Sept. 11 attacks.

(Abeer Tayel of Al Arabiya can be reached at: abeer.tayel@mbc.net)