Massacre of Hindu train passengers by Sikh terrorists – December 26, 1991

Train security is generally understated which makes you wonder why there are not more terrorist attacks on these modes of transportation.

Train security is generally understated which makes you wonder why there are not more terrorist attacks on these modes of transportation.

I love taking the train. Maybe this joy stems from my Canadian heritage: after all the transCanadian train is legendary in my country and its completion is seen as a major part of nation-building. Whenever I can I use this mode of transportation to get where I need to go.

Iconic Canadian photo of the ‘Last Spike’ (1885) (Photo: Public Domain)

As a counter terrorism specialist what I find curious is the almost total lack of security getting on a train. No metal detectors, no body scans, nary a check at all. I just show my ticket, board my car and wait for my glass of scotch in VIA first class (but not when I take the morning train to Toronto!).

I do not want to be accused of giving terrorists ideas but I am frankly surprised at why they do not target trains more often. Think about it: lots of people confined to a small space with nowhere to go. Is there a more lucrative target (other than aircraft but that industry has made it very hard to plan a terrorist attack)?

Yes, there have been attempts in the past. Recently (2017) a suspect was fatally shot at Brussels Central Station after a failed bombing and on August 21, 2015 a Moroccan national attacked a train with 500 passengers onboard en route from Brussels to Paris. This assault was famously thwarted by three Americans and the incident was later made into a movie by Clint Eastwood.

We in Canada also had a bizarre plot back in 2013 when Chiheb Esseghaier and Jaed Raser had a plan to derail a New York-Toronto train. These two were not the sharpest pencils in the box however as they were picked up by train security personnel while walking alongside the tracks doing a recce for their action. They were found guilty of planning a terrorist attack.

1991 Punjab killings

On December 26, 1991 a group of Sikh separatists made their way through a hijacked passenger train in Punjab state and systematically shot Hindu passengers, leaving at least 49 dead and 20 wounded. Four men took out AK-47 automatic rifles and began stalking through the train firing at anyone who appeared to be a Hindu: six other armed terrorists climbed aboard the train at a later crossing and joined in the massacre.

The attack was part of a long campaign for Sikh independence, marred by many terrorist attacks and counter actions by the Indian military. Sikhs had carried out a similar siege on a train in June 1991.

Does this mean we should up security for train travel? Not necessarily. I for one do not want to make getting on a train as onerous as getting on a place. Besides, we cannot create a 100% secure society (as I argued in a piece on plans for metal detectors at Ottawa’s City Hall).

Yes I will continue to take the train from Ottawa to Toronto on a regular basis. No hassle, not much longer than flying (when you figure on security checks at airports) and cheaper for business class. So expect more blogs from me as I sit admiring the countryside on a VIA Canada train.

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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