Putting Rail Attacks in Perspective After Canadian Plot

3 MINS READApr 25, 2013 | 15:20 GMT
Putting Rail Attacks in Perspective After Canadian Plot
STR/AFP/Getty Images
A police handout shows the London Underground train involved in a bomb attack at Aldgate station in 2005

The recently thwarted bomb plot in Canada serves as a reminder that passenger railways — soft targets that see far more traffic worldwide than passenger aircraft — continue to attract militant attacks. On April 22, Canadian authorities arrested two men and charged them with conspiring to blow up a bridge, over which the Amtrak passes, connecting Toronto to New York.

Canadian authorities claim that the suspects, Raed Jaser, a Palestinian who moved to Toronto from the United Arab Emirates, and Chiheb Esseghaier, a Tunisian who moved to Montreal, received instructions from al Qaeda operatives in Iran. Esseghaier's LinkedIn profile showed an image of the flag commonly used by the Islamic State of Iraq, the al Qaeda franchise group that operates in Iraq.

The fact that the two were reportedly targeting an Amtrak train should come as no surprise. Passenger rail has been a consistent target during the era of modern terrorism. In 1982 and 1983 Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, also known as Carlos the Jackal, bombed two French passenger trains in a bid to compel the French government to release his wife, German terrorist Magdalena Kopp. French trains were targeted in the mid-1990s by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group.

Other countries have fallen victim to passenger rail attacks during this time. Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo conducted at least six attacks on the Japanese subway system using botulinum toxin, sodium cyanide devices and the nerve agent sarin.

Since the 1990s, Chechen separatists have conducted multiple attacks against Moscow's subway system and Russia's rail system. These include two attacks against the luxury Nevsky Express train that connects Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Passenger rail attacks continued after 9/11. We saw high-profile attacks in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005. (The London bombing was also followed by a botched copy attack two weeks later.) Other notable attacks include the 2006 train attack in Mumbai and the deadly firebomb attack against the "Friendship Express" in India in 2007.

These examples cover only successful attacks — there have been myriad failed attempts to attack passenger rail throughout the years. In 1997, Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer and Lafi Khalil were arrested before they could strike the New York subway system. More recently, authorities arrested Najibullah Zazi before he could finish his preparations for an attack on the New York subway system.

Frequent Stops

Rail security is an ongoing threat because of the attractive, soft target it poses to attackers. Contributing to this attraction is the sheer volume of passengers who use passenger rails. Indeed, far more people use rail than airplanes daily.

Moreover, passenger rail systems do not lend themselves to airport-like security screenings. After takeoff, an aircraft becomes a sealed compartment, making systematic security checks — separated by considerable distances — a logical and viable process. Major train stations, such as Washington's Union Station or New York's Penn Station, could be physically secured in the way that airports are, but without similar measures in place at the smaller stations along the rail line, these efforts would negligible. The typical passenger rail train stops frequently, sometimes as often as every few miles or city blocks, and passengers come and go constantly.

In addition, the tracks are particularly vulnerable to attack. They are long and straight and are supported by critical infrastructure, such as bridges, that are relatively accessible. It is practically impossible to marshal the resources to observe and secure all tracks all the time.

Last, rail systems advertise their routes and arrival and departure times. This enables militants to plan their attacks more easily.

Passenger rail will thus continue to be a soft target. However, there are some simple measures that rail passengers can and should employ to help keep themselves and their fellow travelers safe. 

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