Trains, planes and automobiles

So this guy gets on a train traveling from Brussels to Paris, pulls out a couple of weapons, including an AK-47, and fails to kill dozens only because three US citizens heroically take him out (see story here).  In the aftermath, the suspect is confused that he is being labelled a terrorist (despite the fact that he was on both the French and Spanish watch lists), claiming that he found the automatic weapon in a park and just wanted to rob people.  As if.

All joking aside, a serious attack was narrowly averted.  And the inevitable calls for increased security on trains have already been issued.

The question is: do we need such measures on trains?  Would they stop attacks?

I’m sure that metal detectors and bomb-sniffing equipment would identify perpetrators and save lives, but at what cost?  Would they change train travel forever?  Trains are seen as a more leisurely way of getting from A to B because they travel at a slower pace (not the TGV I suppose) and we don’t have to go through onerous security lines.  I know that is why I prefer taking VIA Rail from Ottawa to Toronto for business rather than flying.

We have faced our own rail threat in Canada, the Project Smooth plot of 2013.   Chiheb Esseghaier, a Tunisian PhD student, and Raed Jaser, a Palestinian refugee, were found guilty earlier this year for planning to derail a passenger train en route to Toronto from New York. And of course we cannot forget the 2003 Madrid commuter train attack that killed close to 200 and wounded 1600.  There have also been foiled plots in Germany and the US.

In  a way it is surprising that more plots are not planned against trains.  In light of the laxer security noted above, one would think that terrorists would go for easier targets.  But they don’t.  And we really don’t understand why they don’t.  Let’s be happy I suppose that they don’t think like that.

We really need to ask ourselves, however, whether we want to hyper-securitise rail travel as well.  In one sense, we should do everything in our power to prevent attacks from happening.  The survivors and families of victims would want nothing less.

So, let’s assume we ramp up rail security.  People have to line up at checkpoints to go through security.  And since trains stop a lot, at least the ones in Canada do, you would have to ensure security staff on the quais and in the stations to stop assailants from getting on or attacking waiting passengers.

Then what?  We successfully harden trains against attacks and the extremists move on to…sporting events, food courts, outdoor cafes, school campuses, McDonalds’ restaurants…

Do you see my point?  We cannot make all potential targets impervious to attack.  A determined actor will succeed, if security and law enforcement do not act first.

Terrorism is a low frequency high-impact (and vastly over exaggerated) form of violence.  It is inevitable – always has been and always will be.  We need to come to terms with this.

Maybe we just need to train ourselves to accept it.

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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