August 21, 2015: US servicemen stop Islamist attacker on train in Belgium

A mass casualty terrorist attack on a train in Belgium by a jihadi armed with a gun and knife was averted when three US servicemen tackled the assailant.

For train travelers the worst that usually happens is a delay: what about a terrorist attack?

A lot of my readers probably don’t know about the importance of the train in Canadian history. It is REALLY important. If it were not for the train much of this vast land would never have been opened up (some would say that many First Nations would also never have been exposed to diseases and mistreatment as well, and they would not be wrong in that regard).

The completion of the trans-Canada railway in 1885 – actually the Canadian Pacific Railway – is an icon in our history. The photo taken on November 7 of that year near Craigallachie, BC (British Columbia, not before Christ) is one all Canadians know.

It is true that trains have lost a bit of their lustre in Canada of late but that is not surprising. It is a BIG country after all with a small population and making the rail work was always going to be hard. Still, when I was at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and had to travel to either Montreal (2 hours) or Toronto (4 and a half hours) I always took the train.

In the post 9/11 period trains are, when compared to aircraft, a much better way to get from A to B (provided A to B does not cross an ocean: trains do not do well under water). There is little to no security (at least overt security), you can walk around, and you are not 37,000 up in the air if something goes wrong. What is there not to like?

On this day in 2015

The perceived lack of security is also a temptation for terrorists too. We had our ‘Via passenger train’ plot back in 2013 after all. And on this day in 2015 there was a terrorist attack on a train in Belgium.

On August 21 of that year a man emerged from a bathroom on a train speeding between Amsterdam and Paris through Belgium, shirtless with a rifle — possibly an AK 47 — slung over his shoulder and also carrying a blade like a box cutter. He was a Moroccan national who was on the radar screen of European counter-terrorism agencies for his radical jihadist views.

Luckily for the passengers, there were three US servicemen also on board who subdued the terrorist, although three people ended up injured. All three were made French citizens for their actions. The terrorist, Ayoub El Khazzani, told a judge later that he was a ‘psychological wreck’ and ‘unable to kill’. Whatever.

While the investigation into the attack is in its early stages, it is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy. We will remain in close contact with French authorities as the investigation proceeds.

So the next time you are on a VIA train and stuck waiting for another oncoming train to pass somewhere near Napanee, Ontario, just tell yourself ‘at least it is not a terrorist attack’.

Listen to my podcast
An Intelligent Look at Terrorism

In this podcast, retired Canadian intelligence analyst Phil Gurski discusses the subject of terrorism: what it is (and isn’t), trends, developments and more. Phil is not shy to wade into controversial matters and provide his perspective honed from more than three decades in intelligence.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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