Trains, plane and automobiles…and terrorism

Terrorism is sure getting complicated.  The good old days, if I may call them that, were easy by comparison. Terrorists were easy to spot because they tended to chuck bombs or fire weapons at people, the larger the crowd the better.  Then we got to the airline hijacking phase in which most incidents ended relatively peacefully on a tarmac somewhere with little loss of life.  9/11 put paid to that era when the aircraft themselves were used as guided missiles.

In response to 9/11 we tightened up aircraft security to the point where flying is a chore – both for terrorists and for average fliers.  And yet the threat to the airline industry has not disappeared.  The announcement that Islamist extremists may have figured out a way to bypass explosives detection has led to the ban on electronic devices aboard flights leaving certain Middle East and African airports.  And there have been some terrorist incidents on planes of late: a Russian flight out of the Sinai was brought down in November 2015 and three months later an explosion occurred on a Somali aircraft out of Mogadishu (the plane landed safely in that incident).

As  if it was not already hard enough to deal with airline terrorist plots, now we have to worry about cars and trucks.  Several attacks have been executed whereby extremists drive vehicles through crowds: Nice, Berlin, Ohio State University and, most recently, London.  Pity the security services and law enforcement agencies that have to consider this vector of attack and how to prevent it.

Not wanting to be left behind, trains are also part of the mix.  From the Madrid attack in 2003 to the 7/7 attack in London to the failed attack on a Thalys train going from Paris to Amsterdam in 2015 we now have to add the incident this week on a Russian metro in St. Petersburg.

Planes, trains, automobiles.  Welcome to terrorism in 2017.  Extremists are actively looking at multiple ways of causing carnage and each modus operandi has its own challenges.  Aircraft are perhaps the safest to secure since they are not generally accessible to the general public (you have to know how to fly a plane) and getting access to the aircraft is not so straightforward (although the reports out of Montreal last week about baggage handlers expressing sympathy for Islamic State are of concern).

Trains are another matter.  There is little to no security to board a train or a subway and that is indeed a good thing given the sheer volume of daily passengers. Can you imagine airport level security checks at Union Station in Toronto?  What a nightmare that would be!  And yet by resisting this kind of safety these modes may have become the terrorists’ method of choice.

Which brings me to cars and trucks. How in heaven’s name can we expect our spies and cops to stop every terrorist plot that needs nothing more than an ability to steer four (or 18) wheels into a gathering of pedestrians?  You don’t even have to own a car or truck: the Berlin Christmas 2016 terrorists hijacked a truck, killed the Polish driver and went on to cause mayhem.  There is in fact only one way to interdict these kind of attacks – prior intelligence.

As we move forward we will see more and more attempts to kill innocent people using whatever means are available. The more sophisticated plots – like 9/11 say – are probably harder to execute now, which means a race to the bottom.  Whether that means more subway attacks or car/truck incidents – and I haven’t even talked about knives in this blog – remains to be seen. But we must prepare ourselves for these probabilities and hope that CSIS and the RCMP have enough resources to disrupt the majority of them.


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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