We should question US rail safety in wake of failed London train bombing

We should question US rail safety in wake of failed London train bombing
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The recent terrorist attack on London’s metro exposes the long-standing concern among security experts regarding the continued vulnerability of rail travel to terrorism. The London attack is a stark reminder that public, and often crowded, means of transportation remains a prime target for terrorists.

At the same time, however, the London attack underscores the reality that most attempted terrorist attacks are not successful. While the outcome should provide some relief to the general public that terrorist attacks rarely cause the mass destruction intended, the continued vulnerability of rail travel around the world should be a warning call to security services to bolster existing countermeasures.

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The most infamous attack on a public railway occurred in 1995 when members of Aum Shinrikyo released sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent, into Tokyo’s subway killing 12 and injuring thousands. In 2004, nearly simultaneous bombings of Madrid’s commuter rail system killed 192 and had an enormous impact on Spain’s general elections just a few days after the incident. One year later in July 2005, London’s transportation network was the target of a highly coordinated terrorist attack that included the detonation of three separate bombs on three separate rail lines.

 

Terrorist attacks on railways continue to be a threat. Several attempted attacks have occurred this year. In April an explosive device was successfully detonated on Saint Petersburg’s Metro, reputedly killing 16, including the perpetrator. 

But what is most striking about last week’s attempted attack in London is that the explosive devise appears to have failed to detonate as intended. While several bystanders were injured, the attack could have been much worse. This outcome is not unusual. Failed terrorist attacks are far more common than successful terrorist attacks.

Indeed, earlier this summer Oussama Zariouh, a Moroccan who had lived in Belgium for several years, was shot by authorities as his bomb failed to detonate in a Brussels railway station. In May, Russian authorities reputedly arrested four suspected terrorists who planned on striking Moscow’s subway system. 

Earlier this year EUROPOL released its annual report on terrorism in Europe. Despite dramatic terrorist incidents that garner widespread media attention, such as those in Paris and Nice, EUROPOL has reported a fairly noteworthy decline of nearly 40 percent in the overall number of terrorist attacks among member states over the past few years. 

In the United States, recent studies have estimated that approximately 72 percent of all attempted jihadist-linked terrorist plots were completely foiled. In other words, successful terrorist attacks are rare. In fact, they may be rarer than we even know. The portion of failed attacks is likely to be much higher as many attempted incidents are not disclosed to the public. Scholars also stress that it is extremely difficult to track and record — let alone define — what constitutes a “failed” terrorist attack.

Although experts debate precise definitions, terrorist attacks are considered to be unsuccessful if the operation does not proceed as planned. Terrorist attacks can fail due to a technical error made by the terrorists themselves, or may be foiled by informants or intelligence services. The amount of training a terrorist receives, the level of technical sophistication of a terrorist group, and the degree of innovation in carrying out an attack all serve as additional factors that influence the likelihood of success. It should also be stressed that potential attacks can be thwarted at any stage from the planning process to the actual implementation of attack. 

Understanding why some terrorist attacks fail is critical so counterterrorism experts tasked with devising policy solutions to protect the homeland and its rail system can thwart future attempts. As the investigation into last week’s attack in London moves forward and details begin to emerge, investigators must piece together the factors that contributed to the relative failure of this attack and how to better improve countermeasures. Critical lessons must be learned as to why this particular attack failed, and where improvements can be made in terms of preventing similar attempts. 

Public railways and subway systems remain vulnerable to attack. In fact, just days before the attack in London, Al Qaeda’s “Inspire” magazine encouraged followers to specifically strike railways in both the United States and Europe. At this point in the investigation it remains unclear whether the London attacker heeded Al Qaeda’s call. Nevertheless, shortly after the release of the latest edition of “Inspire” the New York Police Department issued a statement on its Twitter feed that it was prepared to combat terrorist threats to railways.

But it is clear that more proactive measures need to be taken to thwart potential attacks. Amtrak’s David Pearlson, president of the Police Labor Committee, recently disclosed that Amtrak police are unprepared for a terrorist attack and officers are long overdue for upgrades in equipment and staffing. Recognizing the importance of interagency cooperation in preventing terrorism, Pearlson confided that it had been about 10 years since the last time they had conducted interagency training. 

Interagency cooperation, communication and training are critical to not only preventing a future terrorist attack to public railways, but are also vital in managing the chaos in the immediate aftermath of an attack. In April, false rumors of gunshots caused mass hysteria at New York’s Penn Station, leading commuters to run in panic. Several travelers were injured in the melee. The incident prompted Mayor de Blasio to issue a review of the situation while the NYPD met with other agencies to assess existing protocols for handling similar events in the future. 

Although the London incident highlighted the fact that terrorist attacks rarely succeed, the reality is that railways remain vulnerable and officials must remain vigilant. Former congressman and Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, recently expressed his frustration that homeland security officials focus much of their attention on airline travel to the detriment of other forms of transportation including trains.

According to some estimates, passenger trains in the United States carry nearly five times more passengers per day than airlines. The repercussion of inaction would be catastrophic.

The recent attempted bombing in London and similar incidents around the world must spur policymakers to make a more concerted effort to not only thwart a potential terrorist strike on public railways, but ensure adequate interagency protocols are in place to manage the inevitable chaos in the aftermath of an attack.

Jeffrey Treistman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of national security at the University of New Haven. Treistman previously worked for the U.S. Department of State as a policy advisory in Baghdad, Iraq and was a consultant for the Department of Defense’s African Command.