Two Washington State women have been charged with terror attacks after they were captured on camera tampering with train tracks in such a way as to risk a derailment, the federal authorities announced this week.
The authorities, who have been investigating dozens of similar cases this year, believe the actions are intended to express solidarity with Indigenous people in Canada who oppose the construction of an oil pipeline, according to the criminal complaint.
The women, Ellen Brennan Reiche, 23, and Samantha Frances Brooks, 27, were arrested on Saturday in Bellingham, Wash., and charged with one count of terrorist attacks and violence against railroad carriers, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington said in a statement. They appeared in the Federal District Court in Seattle on Monday and were released until their next court appearance, on Dec. 14, the office said.
The F.B.I.’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has been investigating the placement of shunts — devices consisting of wires and magnets that interfere with the signals indicating the presence of a train — on tracks in the region since Jan. 19, the complaint said. Some shunts were hidden under rocks, it said.
Since January, there have been 41 cases of shunts placed on the BNSF Railway tracks in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, near the border with Canada, causing crossing guard malfunctions, braking system interference and, in one case, the near derailment of tanks carrying hazardous chemicals, according to U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran.
“These crimes endanger our community,” Mr. Moran said in the statement.
On 10 occasions, shunts were placed in areas where tracks and streets crossed, which could put vehicles at risk of an oncoming train, the statement said. On Oct. 11, shunts were planted in three locations in the two counties, setting off a braking system on a train that was transporting hazardous and combustible material, it said.
The emergency braking caused a portion of the train to separate from the engine, according to the statement. “Decoupling has the potential to cause a derailment — in this case — of tanker cars of flammable gas in a residential area,” it said.
Shortly after the first shunt was discovered, a claim of responsibility was posted on an anarchist website, prosecutors said. The site, a “digital community center” for anarchist, antifascist and anticapitalist movements called It’s Going Down, posted an article on Jan. 22 saying that the action was “in solidarity with Native American tribes in Canada seeking to prevent the construction of an oil pipeline across British Columbia, and with the express goal of disrupting BNSF operations and supplies for the pipeline,” according to the complaint.
The complaint appears to refer to an anonymous article saying, in part, that “we disrupted the high-volume railway that moves resources from the active ports of Everett, Edmonds, Seattle and further south to the Blaine border crossing into Canada.”
The website, which says it doesn’t take responsibility for the content it publishes, says it does “not condone or promote illegal, violent, and unlawful behavior or actions, or acts of intimidation against individuals or groups.”
The criminal complaint gave no further details about the Indigenous groups and the pipeline. But a broader movement of opposition to Canada’s fossil fuel ambitions has prompted some groups to assert their sovereignty over the land and try to stall oil and gas projects.
Jesse Cantor, the public defender representing Ms. Reiche, said the case was at a very early stage. “Ms. Reiche is presumed innocent and she was released from custody on an appearance bond on Monday,” he said in an email on Wednesday.
A lawyer for Ms. Brooks and a spokesman from BNSF, which serves the western two-thirds of the United States and three Canadian provinces, were not immediately available to comment on Wednesday.
The arrests of the two women took place on Saturday, when Deputy Chief Tyler Nies of the BNSF Railroad Police received a motion alert from a game camera installed on a stretch of the network in Bellingham, the complaint said. He reviewed the photograph, saw a “trespasser” and another object or person nearby, and contacted the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, it said.
Chief Nies then opened his laptop and noticed that track signals were disrupted in the same area; he then called a member of the task force, it said.
When the officer, Lucas Shulman, arrived on the scene, Ms. Reiche told him and a sheriff’s deputy that she and Ms. Brooks were looking for the keys to her car, which was parked nearby. The car had a bumper sticker with the words Indigenous Land overlaid on a map of the United States, the complaint said.
The two were detained for trespassing, and the authorities later found Ms. Reiche had a bag with rubber gloves, copper wire and a drill with a wire brush attachment that was believed to have been used to scuff the track to improve its contact with the shunt, the complaint said.
The authorities also found a shunt at the place where the women were discovered kneeling, it said.