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Al-Qaida runs photo of SFO tram: 'Assemble your bomb'

An al-Qaida magazine containing a photo of a people-mover train at San Francisco International Airport - along with a caption urging readers to "assemble your bomb" - has set off alarms on Capitol Hill as the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings approaches.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, told a homeland security hearing Wednesday that he was "disturbed" by the English-language spring edition of the al-Qaida publication Inspire, which features a darkened photo of a lone young man aboard what the congressman said had been identified as "a tram in San Francisco's international airport."

Printed with the photo, Swalwell noted, was a caption reading, "For how long will you live in tension? Instead of just sitting, having no solution, simply stand up. Pack your tools of destruction. Assemble your bomb, ready for detonation."

Swalwell, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he was especially concerned because "this is one of the largest international airports in the world, certainly one of the largest on the West Coast, and thousands of passengers a day use the tram to connect from BART to the airport."

'It does bring concern'

In a hearing marking the upcoming April 15 anniversary of the marathon bombings, which killed three people and injured 264, Swalwell asked former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis whether the photo should concern Bay Area residents and law enforcement.

"It does bring concern to me," said Davis, now a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He said Inspire, published by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, targets an audience of young Muslim extremists worldwide.

"This kind of extremist propaganda on the Internet, if it's not countered with something, does tend to create problems for us," Davis said. "When you see that type of picture in there, when you read about the attacks on the infrastructure around the transformers in California that were sniped at ... it's hard to figure what is real and what isn't real."

San Jose attack

Davis referred to an April 16 attack on a PG&E substation in south San Jose, in which unknown shooters firing for nearly 20 minutes damaged more than a dozen transformers. The head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time, Jon Wellinghoff, called it "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred" in the country, although the FBI has said it does not believe the incident was the work of terrorists.

"We need to be vigilant," Davis told Swalwell with regard to the SFO photo. "It's clear there is a threat, and we need to really be aware of it, and do everything we can as a nation to respond."

An official with the Transportation Security Administration, who asked not to be named, said Wednesday that the agency was aware of the photo but viewed it mostly as a "propaganda" piece rather than evidence of specific planning.

The official noted that the magazine did not refer specifically to SFO's AirTrain people mover and said the picture was believed to be a "stock photo."

"We're not aware of any specific threats to the San Francisco area," the official said.

Magazine's message

Brian Michael Jenkins of the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose said authorities closely monitor Inspire, which "embraces a strategy of do-it-yourself terrorism ... to inspire local jihadists to carry out actions - whatever they can do, wherever they are."

Jenkins, director of the institute's National Transportation Security Center, said terrorists have targeted public-transportation systems in London, Madrid and elsewhere because they are generally "not looking to take on defended targets. They're looking for easy targets with a high body count ... to create a major disruptive publicity event."

He said of the photo in Inspire, "It is not so much that al-Qaida is making a strategic decision about where to open the next front."

More likely, "it is simply underscoring kinds of targets ... and attempting to get the brothers to push back from the monitor and actually do something."

Swalwell, in an interview, said, "I don't believe that people should change their travel and commute patterns."

But he added, "Be alert, note your surroundings, and appreciate that there are still people out there who wish to do us harm."

Carla Marinucci is senior political writer at The San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: cmarinucci@sfchronicle.com Twitter @cmarinucci

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