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Federal authorities in Seattle on Monday charged two women with a terrorist attack on train tracks, suggesting they were working with an anarchist community to stand in solidarity with a Native American tribe to oppose the construction of a natural gas pipeline across the Canadian province of British Columbia by trying to derail trains in Washington state.
Samantha Frances Brooks, 27, and Ellen Brennan Reiche, 23, were arrested Saturday night in Bellingham, located in Whatcom County, which borders Canada, as they allegedly placed “shunts” on Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Washington Monday.
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A shunt is comprised of wire and magnets that are strung across the tracks, mimicking the electrical signal of a train.
The two women were charged in connection to Saturday’s incident, but there have been 41 incidents of shunts placed on the BNSF tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties since January. Shunts were placed in areas that disrupt the crossing guards where the tracks cross streets, so vehicles could have tried to cross the tracks unaware of the oncoming train, U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran said.
On one occasion on Oct. 11, multiple shunts were placed in three different locations in Whatcom and Skagit. The devices triggered an automatic braking system on a train that was transporting hazardous and combustible material. The emergency braking then caused a portion of the train to decouple from the engine. Though a disaster did not occur, federal prosecutors said the decoupling could have caused the tanker cars filled with flammable gas to derail in a residential area.
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“These crimes endanger our community. I commend the agents from Customs and Border Protection, FBI, BNSF Police, and state and local partners who prioritized stopping this criminal conduct,” Moran said in a statement.
Shortly after the first shunts were discovered in January, federal prosecutors said an anarchist organization claimed responsibility on its website, writing that the devices were placed on the tracks to show solidarity with a Native American tribe in Canada attempting to block the construction of a $6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline project that crosses its traditional territory in northwestern British Columbia.
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In Canada, members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, and others who supported the tribe orchestrated a railroad blockade earlier this year before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic that triggered cancellations for thousands of passengers, layoffs and sparked fears of food and supply shortages. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau intervened in February to negotiate with tribal leaders to clear the impasse, which did not significantly affect services across the border into the United States.
According to its website, It's Going Down is a digital community center for anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements. Its statement said railroad blockades were meant to help the Wet’suwet’en Nation in their fight against “colonial invasion” and that the U.S. and Canadian governments must stop “violently supporting those members of the 1% who are stealing our resources and condemning our children to a world rendered uninhabitable by climate change.”
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A terrorist attack on a railroad facility is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The case is being investigated by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes agents from Customs and Border Protection, in connection with the BNSF Railway Police. Critical investigative assistance is being provided by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.
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